Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 69

June 25, 2021

Miracles and Messengers

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope this correspondence finds you doing well and in good health, while enjoying the beautiful summer weather.

In this week’s Torah portion of Balak, we read about a pagan prophet, Bilaam, who is engaged by the Balak, King of Moab, to curse the travelling Israelites. People believed that when Bilaam cursed or blessed someone, it would be so. Balak called on Bilaam to curse the Israelites because he was fearful that they would overtake him and his land.

Balak offered a reward to Bilaam for his services, but God spoke to Bilaam and warned him to not curse the Israelites because God had blessed them. Bilaam, however, continues with his hired mission to speak against the Israelites due to the large reward. (Parenthetically, we should note that Bilaam is referred to in non-Israelite sources, so therefore, likely was an actual historical figure).

God sends an Angel of the Lord with a sword to enforce Bilaam’s obedience. At first, Bilaam did not see the Angel, but his donkey did. Three times, the donkey is stopped when his path is blocked by the Angel. Unaware of the angel’s presence, Bilaam became so angry that he screams at his donkey, “If I had a sword, I would kill you!” Miraculously, the donkey begins to speak and rebukes the prophet for not recognizing that the angel had blocked their path. Go figure, a talking donkey!

What are we to make of this Alice In Wonderland-like moment, a talking, moralizing donkey in the heart of the story?

The rabbinic tradition was no doubt aware of the absurdity of this tale. In Pirkei Avot, the very oft-quoted Ethics of the Fathers, we are taught that certain supernatural events in the Torah were pre-planned by God, even during the initial week of Creation: “Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath in the twilight.” Among them are: the well with which Miriam would sustain the Jewish people in the desert (as detailed in last week’s parasha); the rainbow God paints in the sky for Noah after the flood; the rod Moses needs to part the Red Sea; the tablets of the Covenant themselves; the mouth of the earth destined to swallow Korach; and even “the mouth of the donkey” that would later speak to Bilaam.

I believe that there are two lessons to be culled from this Mishnaic statement.

First, theologically, it teaches that scriptural supernatural events are, in fact, part of God’s initial plan. This implies that God is not prepared to circumvent physical laws of nature, but rather that He did pre-plan extraordinary events to protect the Jews, while remaining active in the unfolding history of our people.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, there is a message of “awareness” that we can gain from the two central characters in this bizarre tale of Balak and Bilaam. The donkey, a mundane creature at best, takes on a more spiritual sensitivity than does an acknowledged non-Jewish prophet. Perhaps, then, all of us are similarly capable of both seeing God and sharing His message. Taking this one step further, Bilaam teaches us that when we embrace our sense of holiness, godliness, blessing, and spirituality and connect with God, tradition, peoplehood, community, and others, we too can become leaders.

As we enter into Sabbat, although we are unlikely to encounter speaking donkeys, we are likely to see the miracles of God that are always around us, large and small. Let us always appreciate those miracles and use them to remind ourselves of our connection to our people, traditions, heritage, and maker.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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