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Parashat Balak

June 22, 2010

By Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein

In the middle of all the kvetching in the Book of the Wilderness, Bemidbar, we have a king who commissions a special curse for the people of Israel, and ends up paying to bless them. We have a talking donkey, working for a guy who is supposed to be a prophet, who has a vision of G!d which the prophet completely misses. The Torah portion Balak is comic relief when we need it most!

Balak, the king of Moab, wanted desperately to curse the Israelites. So he called in his expert for blessings and curses, Balaam, and ordered him to come up with some good curses. Balaam refused, but agreed after making a deal with G!d that he would do exactly what G!d would tell him.

Balaam goes to curse the Israelites, or so Balak thought. But G!d places and angel with a fiery sword to block his path. Balaam’s donkey sees the angel; Balaam doesn’t. The donkey refuses to budge. Three times Balaam beats the donkey, but she won’t move. Finally the donkey says to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (Num. 22:28) Balaam is really mad now, and says “You have made a mockery of me. If I had a sword I’d kill you!” (22:29) The donkey replies, “Look, I am your usual donkey that you have been riding on every day. Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Balaam says “no”, and then he sees the angel. The angel and Balaam talk, affirming that Balaam has to do everything G!d says.

Balaam doesn’t wonder about his talking donkey? If my donkey talked, I hope that I’d notice! (Maybe because of the Shrek movies we’re used to talking donkeys.) But instead of reacting to the talking donkey, Balaam engages her in conversation. Balaam tells the donkey that he’s angry at the donkey for mocking him. This guy is worried about being mocked by a donkey? And he is the prophet?!

Ultimately Balaam gets to the point where he’s supposed to curse Israel, and he says “How can I curse people who G!d does not want to curse? How can I doom, when G!d hasn’t?” (23:8) So he blesses them instead. Balak goes nuts – he’s paying Balaam to curse, and Balaam blesses! Three times! Finally, Balaam says “Blessed are they who bless Israel; cursed are they who curse Israel.” Balak never gets his money’s worth.

G!d’s Presence is here for all of us to see. The text says that G!d finally uncovered Balaam’s eyes, so he could see the angel that stopped his donkey. With our eyes closed to the world around us, we see nothing. And so often we walk around, sightless, refusing to see. When G!d opens your eyes, you see the world for what it is and what it can be.

Are we seeing the visions of G!d, in front of our own faces? Are our eyes open or closed to the world, to the holy and sacred that can be found in the little things, in messages we miss? When the message comes from unexpected places, even from donkeys, maybe we ought to notice.

If a donkey can recognize and respond to the Presence of G!d, perhaps we should be more careful about the ways in which we dismiss people who seemingly have less wisdom to offer than the usual donkey. The rabbis teach in Pirkei Avot, “Who is wise? The person who learns from anyone.”  (Avot 4:1) We can learn from a person whom we might initially perceive as an “ass “.

It just doesn’t pay to engage in activities that are contrary to G!d’s Will. Even though Balak needed to curse, to use G!d against the people of Israel, Balaam told him his plan wasn’t going to work. The king’s ranting and raving were simply the braying of an ass. He was quite blind to that which was apparent, even to a donkey.

May it be Your will, Holy One, that we open our eyes to Your Presence, and see Your work in our lives, in our own experiences, in our own interactions. Let us see Your Presence and hear Your voice even in the most unexpected places, from the most unexpected sources, wherever we may travel.

© Dynamics of Hope, Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein


Rabbi Rafael Goldstein is the Director of Pastoral Care at Mount Sinai Medical Center (New York), and founder of Dynamics of Hope Consulting, which provides workshops for community organizations and healthcare professionals on issues of hope, forgiveness, joy, and life, and Integrative Life Coaching for people struggling with these concerns. He can be reached at 347-280-3654 or www.dynamicsofhope.com