This week's portion contains one of the Torah's more humorous episodes, describing the headstrong actions of a pagan prophet and his talking donkey.
Alarmed at the Israelites' victories against the Amorites, King Balak of Moab sends for the prophet Balaam to curse the intruders. But the Almighty instructs Balaam that cursing Israel would be impossible. Only when Balak ups the ante, dispatching "other dignitaries, more numerous and distinguished than the first," does Balaam set out on his way.
This is where it gets interesting. His donkey sees an angel, sword in hand, standing in the way and swerves into a field. Balaam doesn't see the angel and stubbornly beats the animal.
The angel repositions itself and blocks Balaam's way. Balaam, great prophet that he is, sees nothing of this, while his donkey refuses to move forward and pins his master's foot against a wall.
Balaam is furious, and beats the donkey again. The angel moves forward, and the animal crouches in fear. Balaam is really raging now and strikes the donkey again. Finally, the donkey speaks. Their conversation borders on the incredulous.
"What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" asks the donkey. Balaam replies that it has offended his honor. Unperturbed, the donkey calmly reasons with Balaam: "Have I been in the habit" of behaving this way?
All Balaam can say is "No," before his eyes are opened and he sees the angel, who warns him that he will not be able to curse the Jewish people; the only thing Balaam will be able to say is what the Almighty tells him.
Some of the most beautiful blessings bestowed on the Jewish people, including the Mah Tovu verse sung in synagogues daily, end up coming — much to the consternation of his Moabite patrons — from the mouth of this non-Jewish prophet. But there is rabbinic disagreement over the events leading to the blessings.
The 14th-century philosopher Gersonides contends that the entire story of the donkey was merely a vision by Balaam.
If Balaam was such a great prophet, Gersonides asks, how is it possible that his donkey saw the angel before he did? And why would the Almighty send an angel to deter Balaam if he knew that the prophet couldn't see it in the first place? Finally, why go through the trouble of altering nature to make a donkey talk?
Others see the events literally and try to find purpose in the donkey's miraculous speech. Biblical miracles always achieve some end, whether to frighten the Egyptians, punish their Pharaoh, or save the Jewish people. In Balaam's case, each step in the donkey's journey was intended as another opportunity for the prophet to repent.
Balaam's stubborn decision to plow ahead, his idiocy at engaging his animal in conversation, and the temerity with which he later tries to circumvent a heavenly decree offer an interesting comment on human existence.
It's easy to go through life with blinders on, furiously chasing down an idea or a dream, and frequently, opportunities offer the chance to stop and think and return to the proper path. But the truth is that miracles occur all around us, every moment of every minute of every day.Whether, as the Baal Shem Tov taught, in the path a leaf takes as it falls to the ground or in a volcanic eruption, miracles afford us glimpses of godliness and the inspiration to be vessels of goodness.
Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor of Chabad.org News. Email him at: [email protected] chabad.org.