June 25, 2021
This week’s Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9), presents us with a fantastical story of the talking donkey. Our relationship with animals is strong, but for some, not so. We allow animals into our homes, our bedrooms, and our most intimate moments, lavishing affection on them during the quiet moments of our days. Some like to go hiking to watch birds and see other wildlife, reveling in our sense of our connection with the natural order. Some admire animals for their beauty, grace, and the warmth they bring to our lives. All of this with the belief that we are their superiors. As our tradition teaches us, only people were made in God’s image – we don’t know in whose image animals were created.
This ambivalence is seen in our Torah portion when the sorcerer Balaam becomes angry with his donkey who refuses to follow orders. We know, as readers of the text, that the donkey is trying to protect her less than insightful owner. After enduring repeated blows, the donkey speaks up, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?. . . .Look, am I the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” (22:28,30).
The text teaches us that in the midst of his Balaam’s anger, the donkey was able to answer calmly and with reason. The rabbis of the Midrash ask, “Why is is that animals don’t use speech?” And they answer, “had they been able to speak, it would have been impossible to put them to the service of the people or to stand one’s ground against them. For here was this ass, the most stupid of all beasts, and there was the wisest of all the wise, yet as soon as she opened her mouth he could not stand his ground against her.” Therefore, conclude the rabbis, “God has consideration for the embarrassment of people, and knowing of their needs, shut the mouths of beasts.” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabbah 20:14)
This all raises a fascinating question, “What might animals say if they could speak?” Our dogs might ask us why they are able to be so agreeable and loving all of the time when it seems that we are incapable of sharing the same love and loyalty among ourselves. Our cats might inquire about our admiration of their cleanliness and the care of their bodies while we do not care of ourselves as well as practice many destructive habits.
Balaam’s donkey embarrassed Balaam because he was unable to live up to his own expectations than was the donkey. As some suggest, blessed and cursed by our own gift of reason, we rely on our brains just enough to get ourselves in trouble, but not enough to resolve to live better, more thoughtful, and more reasonable lives. More importantly, think of all of the secrets our pets have seen and imagine how embarrassing it would be if they could speak.