By Rabbi Daniel Plotkin
Parshat Balak is an unusual portion for several reasons. Most unusual is that the parshah contains a talking animal, one of two times it happens in the Hebrew Bible. The serpent in the Garden of Eden speaks, but it seems that was an ability given to serpents until the funny business with the fruit. The donkey in this story, however, is said to have been created just before the end of creation as the sun set, and created for her specific purpose.
That purpose is to warn Bil’am, the prophet contracted by the Moabite King Balak to curse the Israelites, not to do so. After Bil’am initially refuses Balak’s offer, he eventually accepts but God is not happy. God sends a malach (messenger) to dissuade Bil’am from moving forward by threatening to kill him. The donkey, not Bil’am, is the one who sees the malach and she swerves to the left and the right to spare Bil’am from a nasty fate.
Bil’am gets frustrated at the donkey’s disobedience, then she speaks.
She says, “Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Bil’am answers “no,” not expressing any surprise that his donkey just spoke. Then Bil’am sees the malach and offers to turn back. The malach invites Bil’am to continue but only using words God gives him.
Why a talking donkey? The malach could have warned Bil’am without the dramatics and special effects. Midrash Rabba (Numbers 20:14) tells us that some animals have wisdom beyond that of humans, so God made them unable to speak like humans in order not to shame us. In this one case, however, God decided to allow the animal to show that wisdom through speaking.
The donkey informs Bil’am of something he could not see, but was a danger to him. She brings him off his path in order to save his life, and only after his eyes are opened by this miracle of the talking donkey is he able to see that danger.
In our own lives too, there are dangers we never see or understand. When we find ourselves pushed or guided in a direction we aren’t sure we want to go, we can take a moment to consider what might be a benefit of this new direction, what might have been a risk in continuing the intended way.
We all, from time to time, must do things that we aren’t sure is the right thing to do. In those times this story of the donkey reminds us to make sure to open our eyes, to see everything that is around us and all the factors influencing a decision.
When we have challenges, decisions or dilemmas, our first reaction often isn’t the best response. This simple yet wise donkey reminds us that we always have a chance to consider things closely and set the best path forward that we can.
Rabbi Daniel Plotkin is the rabbi educator at Temple Isaiah in Fulton.