Rabbi Danielle Stillman likes to think of this portion as the one about the talking donkey.
I think of this portion as the one about the talking donkey. There is something so arresting about the image, so rare in Torah, of an animal speaking human words to a human. This is what stops Balaam, the prophet, in his tracks. He is riding along on his donkey, who keeps veering to either side of the narrow path they are on, when suddenly the donkey speaks to him. And Balaam is compelled to listen.
In fact, there are two instances of unexpected speech in this portion. The first is the donkey. The second is Balaam himself. For no matter what he tries to say about the Israelites — and he has been sent on a mission to curse them — when he opens his mouth, all he can say is blessings. God is seemingly controlling his speech — or is Balaam himself compelled to tell the truth?
The portion opens with the Moabite King Balak trying to commission Balaam to curse his enemies, the Israelites. God tells Balaam that he cannot, and although Balaam relays that message to Balak, he doesn’t seem to have really heard it. When Balak asks him again, he agrees to wait and see “what else the Lord may say to me.” God does agree to let him go to the Israelite camp — but when Balaam goes God becomes angry. If Balaam had truly been listening to God, he would not have tried the second time to get a different answer.
When Balaam’s donkey speaks to him, Balak is finally compelled to listen. Perhaps it is this act of listening that leads him to tell the truth about the Israelites being blessed.
My meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, describes the practice of mindfulness meditation, when we quiet our minds to listen deeply to our inner thoughts and feelings, as a practice of truth-telling. When we stop and listen we are able to hear what is going on and speak the truth about it. When we rush around, filling our minds with distractions and fleeting thoughts, our minds are too noisy for us to hear anything. It is harder to hear our own truths. This may be why so many people balk at the idea of quieting down — truths can be inconvenient once heard!
We’ll never know if Balaam set out on his journey with the intention of cursing or blessing the Israelites — or trying to say nothing at all and keep in everyone’s good graces. But perhaps when he was stopped by a talking donkey who opened his eyes to a messenger of God there, he was thrust into a mode of listening.
What if, when he arrived at the Israelite camp, he observed closely what he was able to see from the heights? Perhaps he saw the Israelite camp, a group of escaped slaves, surviving in the desert against all odds. When the text says: “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him.” Was the spirit of God received because Balaam was listening for it?
When he uttered the famous words, “Mah Tovu — How lovely are your tents, O Jacob/Your dwellings O Israel!” maybe he was just reporting exactly what he saw by looking and paying attention. God may not have been telling him what to say word for word, but through the miracle of the talking donkey, perhaps God gave Balaam the grace to see and utter the truth.
May we all be blessed with the grace to listen deeply for our truths and to speak only blessings.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: [email protected]