Sunday, June 29, 2014

Balak: Pagan Prophets, Talking Donkeys, and Nervous Shih Tzus: the Spirituality of Animals, Great and Small

            This parsha/Torah reading, one of my favorites, is one of three in the Chumash/Pentateuch named after gentiles, the other two being Noah and Jethro—we are uncertain as to whether the latter, Moses’s father-in-law, converted himself to Judaism: the Midrash/Legends say yes, but the text itself is silent on the matter.
Since earliest childhood, the dialogue between Bilaam, the purblind pagan prophet, and his clear-sighted donkey, has fascinated me, though it is not too far a stretch of the imagination to conjure up a scenario where an animal shows far more sense than its owner. For centuries, dogs and cats have been believed to be in touch with the spirit world, so why not donkeys, as well?
In the story, after pagan-prophet Bilaam’s greed and fear of King Balak persuade him to undertake the mission of cursing the Israelites who are passing through Moab, Balak’s kingdom, he saddles up his donkey and rides off, still uncertain What to Do: Listen to the Israelite God and Honorably Beg Off the Errand, or Take Balak’s Money, and Curse the Israelites? So deep in thought, so indecisive is he, that he fails to see the Angel of God, sent to block his path. Instead, his sharp-eyed donkey sees the seraph, and veers off the road to avoid a collision. Still daydreaming, the enraged Bilaam beats his donkey for going in the wrong direction.
After the angel disappears and re-appears three times—each time missed by the purblind prophet, who keeps beating the poor beastie—God miraculously grants the hapless donkey the power of speech.
“What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” She protests to her master.
Instead of wondering why and how his mount can suddenly speak, the muddleheaded seer replies, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword, I’d kill you.”
“Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all these years until now!” says the donkey, “Have I ever disobeyed you before?”
To which Bilaam must answer, “No” (Num. 22:28-30; paraphrase mine).
At which point he lifts up his eyes and finally sees the angel; he tumbles off his donkey, prostrates himself, and worships. And, of course, the angel gives him instructions….
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all lift our eyes and get instructions directly from God?
This is a beautiful vignette about smart beasts and foolish people—we mortals who are all wrapped up in our own affairs, and unable to see the beauty around us. Animals live in the moment: we could learn a lot from them (As I write, our little brown rescue Shih Tzu, Kirby, is frantically running up and down the stairs and around the house, trying to find a proper hiding-place to stash a new chew toy, certain that a Mysterious Army of Shih Tzu Warrior-Dogs will be invading presently to steal it from him. It hasn’t happened yet, but You Can Never Be Certain.)
            Finally, Bilaam is overcome by his admiration and love for the Israelite God, and changes his planned curse to a blessing—a prayer so beautiful, that part of it, the Mah Tovu, “How Goodly are Thy Tents, O’ Jacob,” has become part of our early-morning liturgy. As the prophet beholds the tents of Israel, agleam in the morning dew like a string of pearls, he compares them to divine sanctuaries. This becomes the verse we recite upon entering the synagogue every morning. It is both charming and divinely ironic that it was composed by a Moabite who, like Ruth, became a friend of our people. All it took was a talking donkey.