In this week’s parashah, Parashat Balak, the Moabite King Balak,
afraid of the power of the people of Israel
as we are wandering through the desert passing by his kingdom, thinks of this great scheme.
He is going to call upon Balaam
who has this power
to bless and the power to curse.
He sends his dignitaries to Balaam saying,
“Please go and curse this people. I’m afraid of them, I’m scared of them: they’re too numerous.”
Sort of like Pharaoh said.
And Balaam wisely says,
" Hmmm, no, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”
Mostly because God told him,
“Balaam, that’s not a very good idea.”
But eventually he’s persuaded after a number of visits from Balak’s dignitaries.
Balaam gets up in the morning,
he saddles up his donkey,
and they set out with his servants.
At a certain point in the journey, the donkey simply refuses to go any further!
Balaam doesn’t understand why the donkey is misbehaving in this way and starts beating the donkey.
He doesn’t know the donkey actually sees in front of him,
actually I should say her,
it’s a female donkey
in front of her,
The donkey sees the angel of death coming to stop Balaam from his appointed task.
The donkey sits down on the road and refuses to move.
After Balaam beats her the third time, she starts to talk.
What does she says:
" Balaam, I have been your trusty donkey all these years. Have I ever led you astray? Have I ever misbehaved?”
And he has to concede, no, she’s been a good donkey. She says,
" So why would I lead you astray this time? Don’t you think there’s something larger going on here?”
And of course the donkey has saved Balaam’s life and also alerted him to the danger in his appointed task,
and as we know he eventually does continue on the path.
He reaches the point where he can overlook the entire encampment of Israel.
Instead of cursing us, what comes out of his mouth are words of blessing:
" How wonderful and how lovely are your tents.”
I want to focus on this episode that happens to Balaam between when he is called and when he acts.
That’s the donkey, and especially the fact that the donkey speaks.
This is not the first time in the Torah that an animal speaks.
What’s the other time?
The snake in the first chapters of Genesis in the Garden of Eden.
What’s interesting is that there are some similarities and there are some differences here between the donkey and the snake.
Both of them tell a human being what the human being should do.
In both situations it’s a cross-gender relationship:
female donkey telling a male, Balaam, what he should do,
the snake, which is male in the Torah, telling a woman, Eve, what she should do.
Except the advice that the two animals give is completely different. Because the donkey is telling Balaam to do the right thing:
“Balaam, this isn’t a good idea, you know it’s not a good idea, so why don’t you, instead of cursing Israel, maybe you should bless them, that’s what G-D wants you to do.”
The snake gives terrible advice. He says,
“Ehhh, Eve, I know you’ve been told not to eat the fruit, but it’s not gonna to hurt you. It’s delicious! Don’t you wanna eat it?”
And she says,
“Oh yeah, that’s a pretty good idea. Okay, I’ll eat it.”
Two animals both giving advice, one good advice, one bad advice.
So what’s the Torah trying to tell us if we compare these two animals speaking to human beings?
Well, it’s not just “don’t always listen to animals when they speak to you.”
But the Torah recognizes that there are many different voices of advice that we might listen to,
many different opinions that we might listen to.
And perhaps this is a warning that no one is a hundred percent right or a hundred percent wrong all of the time.
Who are the voices of advice that we listen to?
For some of us it’s our spouses,
could be our therapists,
could be our parents even,
could be our favorite columnist or commentator commenting on events of the day.
And even though we have our favorite source of advice, nobody is a hundred percent right all the time.
But it’s therefore also nobody is a hundred percent wrong all the time,
and that goes for one’s enemy
for one’s political opponent.
Even one’s political opponent has some good ideas.
So my hope on this Shabbat is that we’re able to discern.
We’re able to discern the difference between good advice and bad advice,
between voices that we should listen to and voices that perhaps are guiding us on the wrong path.
And that on this Shabbat and on other days to follow, we learn to follow the right advice,
that we’re able to listen when it’s given.