Balak (King of Moab)

BalakNumbers 22:2 to 25:9

In Balak we encounter the strange story of Balaam, the sorcerer, and his talking donkey/ass. However, we learn that the story can take on added meaning if we change the ending.
This week, while researching for these comments, I came across an article focusing on Ballam’s treatment of his donkey/she-ass. It featured an important lesson… but, one that isn’t directly stated in the text.

The article caused me to pause and re-think the story of Balaam and his talking donkey/ass.

In case you don’t remember the story, here’s a brief recap: Balaam, a renowned sorcerer, was asked by Balak, king of Moab, to place a curse on the Israelites who were about to invade his land. Balaam asked God for approval of his endeavor. At first God said no, but after a second request gave permission… only if Balaam said and did as God requested.

Balaam saddled his she-ass and proceeded to Moab. On the way the ass caught sight of an angel with a drawn sword blocking the road. The ass swerved off the road to avoid the angel. Balaam beat the animal to get it back on the road.

Later, the angel then stationed himself on a narrow place in the road between the vineyards and a wall. Seeing the angel, the ass moved toward the fence and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the fence and Balaam beat the ass.

Once again the angel moved forward on the road to a very narrow place. When the ass saw the angel, she realized there was no way to pass, so she just lay down under Balaam. Balaam became furious and beat the ass with a stick.

At this point, God opened the mouth of the ass so that it was able to speak the following words to Balaam: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me!” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day!” Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

Then God uncovered Balaam’s eyes so that he could see the angel standing before him with a drawn sword. The angel spoke to Balaam, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times” It is I who came out as an adversary, for your errand is obnoxious to me. And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed while sparing her.”
Balaam replied, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you will disapprove, I will turn back. But the angel of the Eternal said to Balaam, “Go with those mortals. But you must say nothing except what I tell you. So Balaam went on with Balak’s dignitaries. (Num.22:1-35)

I am reminded of a question posed in a “Ten Minutes of Torah” article a few years ….“Is the prophet an ass? Or is the ass a prophet?

Yes, we realize that Balaam had mistreated his animal. But, the animal acted to protect him from the angel, and then actually spoke to him. Don’t these actions of the ass deserve a response? In the article I cited at the beginning of these comments, Rabbi Cohen states, “What I have always found astonishing is the absence of concern about Balaam’s treatment of his animal…. An animal that had served him for many years….. When the animal tries to protect Balaam, it is met with abuse.”

The unspoken lesson of this parsha is what could have happened at the end….. The angel speaks to Balaam, . “If [the ass] had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed while sparing her.” Balaam replies, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way….”

Rabbi Cohen, asks…. What about the animal that has been beaten? … the animal that actually spoke words to its master?…. the animal that suffered? Where is the sign of regret? We wonder what the animal standing on the side of the road thinks as her master speaks. Will her pain from the blows be acknowledged? Will a healing salve be applied to the cuts she endures? Will her efforts on behalf of her master ever be acknowledged? …… Once the donkey speaks, she is never mentioned again. Some midrash implies that she actually dies at this location.

What might have the rabbis learned?…. What might have they taught, based on an expression of regret that never came from Balaam?

How often has a person in authority taken a wrong path, only to be corrected by someone of lesser stature?. Then, the person making the corrections is punished for going against authority….. only to learn in the end they were right. How often does this punishment take the form of actual physical abuse? … as we saw with the she-ass in this story. However, without a response, the punishment lasts and is not abated.

What a difference a sincere apology could have made. It would have showed that there was regret and given closure to a bad episode…. Bad feelings could have bee eased. Wounds could have had a chance to heal…. But, without any action, bad feelings and real hurt that can endure for years.

However, this is not the message I received from the text. Did the authors of Torah miss this message? …. Or did I miss the message because I turned a page to fast without thinking of what I read…. Either way, what we read is a story of abuse. Whether it’s animal or human abuse… it is wrong and should be recognized with statements of regret and real efforts to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

Earl Sabes

* “The End of Abuse” by Rabbi Diane Aronson Cohen (Temple Ohev Shalom, Colonia New Jersey) appearing in The Women’s Torah Commentary edited by Rabbi Elyyse Goldstein, pp. 30-6.

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