Parasha Balak reminds me of the hilarious Shrek movies, where the beloved talking donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy, displays a boundless ability of making his opinions and thoughts heard. However, unlike the Shrek movies, the Torah isn’t known for its comedic value, nor is it abound with talking animals. The only other talking animal in the Torah is the snake in Gan Eden in Bereishit. Here we find the combination of both.
The King of Moab, Balak, asks the prophet Balaam to curse the Children of Israel. So Balaam heads to the Israelite camp to carry out his assigned duty. Incensed at what was being planned, God places an angel in the way of Balaam and his donkey. Each time the donkey attempts to evade the danger of the armed angel, Balaam becomes more infuriated. Finally, the donkey drops to the floor and refuses to move. Then Balaam starts hitting the donkey with a stick.
“Then Adonai opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?’. Balaam said to the ass, ‘You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me I would kill you’. The ass said to Balaam, ‘Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ And Balaam answered, ‘No’.” (Bemidbar 22:28-30)
Only now does Balaam see the angel and realises that he owes his life to the donkey. The angel tells him to carry on the journey, but he must only use the words that the angel will tell him. Balaam continues on his way, and instead of cursing the Children of Israel, he blesses them. The story could easily have taken place without the piece with the talking donkey. So, what is it we can learn from this very unusual encounter?
Firstly, there’s a direct connection between what happened there and Balaam’s mission. The donkey sees the angel blocking the way, which Balaam initially fails to see. Then the donkey speaks, and Balaam discovers the truth behind what had occurred. Balaam’s mission involves seeing (he had to view the Israelites in their camps) and speaking (after he found them, he was to curse them).
Secondly, the donkey represents a humble beast of burden. Balaam rides atop the donkey reflecting the order where the powerful are honoured as they ride upon the backs of the lowly and hapless. Through experiencing Balaam’s lack of control as he beats the donkey, eventually falling to the floor, the donkey mocks Balaam, and the assumed order.
By using the “over the top” encounter, where a donkey can see what the human cannot, and where that donkey not only speaks, but also challenges the hierarchy and order, the Torah teaches that we can learn a lot through humility and respect, and that power and perceived superiority aren’t always a formula for success.
Let us take the time to acknowledge and respect that all parties (human or otherwise) play an important role in our journeys, and let’s be grateful for the role they play, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
In the words of Shrek; “That’ll do Donkey. That’ll Do”.