Pssst! Have you heard the one about the talking donkey? This week’s Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) has a bit of a reputation. Between the talking donkey, the two main characters with just-similar-enough names, and its position in the Torah cycle as the mother of all tangents, Balak is hard to pin down. It’s tempting to underestimate its theological import, but as any follower of many comedians can tell you, just because something is funny doesn’t mean it isn’t serious.
In fact, this portion offers an odd and penetrating parable about God’s power and the power derived from listening for—and hearing—God’s voice. It tells the tale of Balak, king of Moab, whose revulsion for the Israelites leads him to engage the services of a sorcerer to lay down a curse on them. The sorcerer, Balam, finds himself floundering as to whether or not to take the job. It’s a tempting position, involving travel and riches, and while he probably knows in his kishkes that he should say “no” outright, he doesn’t. After consulting God and getting an answer he doesn’t understand, Balam takes the bait . . . and takes the gig.
On the journey, there’s a strange encounter involving Balam, a mysterious messenger from God who is trying to stop him from taking the journey, and Balam’s own donkey. The donkey saves Balam from the messenger and Balam continues on his ill-advised errand. Yet as he is ultimately connected to divine will, he cannot do anything other than what God commands him to do. Once he catches a glimpse of the Israelites, Balam tries and fails to curse them. Three times. Ultimately, Balam submits to the Divine plan to bless the Israelites as per the covenant of Abraham.
As Balam is considering whether to undertake the journey, God comes to him and asks Who are these people to you? (22:9) Regarding this verse, Rashi points us to Midrash Tanchuma (Balak 5), which suggests that God intended to delude Balam into thinking it might be possible to issue the curse without God knowing about it. That is, if God is asking sincerely who Balak’s people are, it calls into question God’s omniscience—and Balam, being a magician and all, might have a chance at sneaking the curse under the radar.
This, of course, leads us to the cryptic matter of the donkey. After having compromised his integrity by taking on a task that God did not sanction, Balam finds himself facing obstacles he didn’t even realize were there, buffeted by conflicting forces and unsure where to place his trust.
Balam was a conjurer, at home in a realm of oddities and strangeness. This moment, steeped in magic as it was, perhaps offered the perfect setting for him to have a realization of God’s power. Yet even though it was God who animated the donkey to talk (22:28), and God who opened Balam’s eyes (22:31), the matter was not settled. As the text suggests, afterwards, it is the quiet and solitude, away from talking donkeys of any species, that allows Balam to tune himself to God’s voice.
It is all too easy for our attention to be drawn in many different directions, in pursuit of what looks like blessing. Balak teaches us that while we may get sidetracked by the spectacle from time to time, it is ultimately the still small voice of God that is our source of clarity and of blessing. As in a magician’s illusion, we are misdirected to the talking donkey, while the real magic comes from somewhere else entirely.