PARSHAT BALAK:  Numbers 22:2 - 25:9 Insights into a Talking Donkey

PARSHAT BALAK:  Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

Insights into a Talking Donkey

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Although most of the residents of this upscale retirement home were Christian, a few Jewish residents had asked the Pastor if a Rabbi could give a sermon there. And that’s how I happened to be addressing about 50 or so Seniors at their Vespers service on a Sunday afternoon. “You can talk about the Pentateuch or the Psalms or the rest of the Old Testament,” the Pastor had advised me, “but please don’t talk about God.” He really meant that I should not talk about theological differences, so I agreed. “Of course. I’ll discuss what we have in common.”

That afternoon, at the elegant Senior Residence, I knew was mainly addressing believing Christians. So I taught them all the simple words of the song, “Hine Ma Tov,” in Hebrew (the words are taken from the first verse of Psalm 133, a short prayer of gratitude, which reads “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!”), and then I proceeded to discuss the scriptural portion for the day with a few introductory remarks.

“The scriptural portion of our service (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9) for today,” I said, “comes from the Pentateuch, which is Greek for “Five,” and refers to the Five Books of Moses, which in Hebrew is called “the Torah,” which in English means “Instruction.” You probably know that the entire Old Testament was first written in Hebrew, and then it was translated into Greek, which was called The Septuagint, and then it was translated into Latin, known as The Vulgate. And from the Latin, it was translated into English and, eventually, into many other languages.

“That’s why it is useful to study Hebrew, because, with all those translations, the meaning of the words may not be exactly the same in English.  Added to that, the original Hebrew words did not have any vowels. The letters were all consonants, like text messaging. The reader has to figure out the rest. So the meaning also depends on the vowels you give to the words. There are many Christian scholars studying Hebrew today exactly for that reason: to check out what the words are really saying by reading the Bible in its original language — and to understand that there are various meanings possible for many words.”

“So I’d like you to think of studying the Bible,” I explained, “as if you were playing the piano. If you’ll notice, there are both black and white keys on the piano. We could play some nice music on the white keys alone, but we wouldn’t have the nuances that the black keys, the sharps and flats, would give the music. If we just played on the white keys, it would be like reading the Bible literally, in C Major all the time. So as a soon-to-be rabbi – the word “rabbi” means “my teacher” — my job is to add the interpretation, the sharps and flats.

“A rabbi’s sermon is called a “derash,” an interpretation,” I continued. “What is written down in the Pentateuch is called the ‘Written Torah.’ And the interpretation is called the ‘Oral Torah,’ much of which has been transmitted from generation to generation, although new commentary is continually added.  So ‘[r]abbinic language contains numerous layers of meaning. The Talmud [a compilation of centuries of rabbinic commentary on the Torah] frequently attempts to uncover the hidden meaning of a word… thereby revealing new understandings of the … teaching.’ That is why we need both – the white keys and the black keys too – to fully understand the intent, the background, and the underlying story.

“Our scriptural portion, which this week is from Numbers 22:2-25:9, is the story of Balak (the warlike Moabite king who is fearful that the Jews will become too numerous and overrun his kingdom, and thus he wishes the Jews harm), and it’s also the story of Bilaam (the prophet whom the Moabite king hires to curse Israel), and the third character is Bilaam’s talking donkey, who turns out to have more sense than either Balak or Bilaam.  The prophet, Bilaam, is supposed to be a visionary, but it turns out that his Donkey is the visionary. It’s the Donkey – and the Bible specifies that it’s a she-Donkey, presumably even more sensitive than a male donkey would be — whose acute animal senses enable her to see Angels along the road, warning that Bilam should not curse the Israelites. What’s wrong with human beings? the Donkey complains, in effect. “You ride on me all day, and then you beat me? Angels keep telling you to stop, three times – don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it — and you don’t hear, Bilaam!”  Finally listening to the Donkey, Bilaam promises that the only words he will speak are the ones that the Eternal One puts in his mouth. And when Bilaam glimpses the Israelites camping out in the desert, the words that do emerge from his mouth are those of admiration and blessing. “Ma Tovu.” “ How Good!….

These words flow out of Balaam’s mouth from the top of the mountain that overlooks where the Hebrews are encamped. It is the third time that King Balak has tried to get Balaam to curse the Israelites, and yet, miraculously, out of Balaam’s mouth comes a blessing. What was supposed to be a curse is turned into a blessing.  The Bible story teaches us that, with God’s help, human beings do have the power to transform a curse into a blessing. And that words of peace are better than acts of war.

“And there is more. Remarkably, generations later, the biblical Ruth, a Moabite woman who became a Jew-by-choice, was actually the great-granddaughter of King Balak – and, by her marriage to Boaz, she was also the great-grandmother of King David (from whom it is foretold that the Messiah will come).  And that is how a curse became a blessing, and an enemy became part of the Jewish family.

“Today, Jews still sing the words of Balak’s emissary, Bilaam, as part of the liturgical morning blessings: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel” (Numbers 24:5).

“This dramatic scene from Numbers 24:5, is traditionally coupled with one of the most quoted passages in the Bible, the few lines from the prophet Micah (6:8) that sum up what we are each commanded to do to be a blessing every day:

“He has told you, O man, what is good,

And what the Lord requires of you:

Only to do justice

And to love goodness,

And to walk modestly with your God;

Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.