The Talking Donkey

          We love the expression “talking head” even if we don’t like the person it represents. We often portray such a person as a fool. In this week’s portion, however, the ass, or donkey becomes the wise one and the prophet becomes the fool.

          The donkey saw an angel with a drawn sword,[1] an image that only appears in the Bible in one other place; the Book of Genesis, with the angel blocking the entrance to the Garden of Eden.[2] As Rashi points out, “ותרא האתון AND THE SHE-ASS SAW [THE ANGEL] — but he did not see him, for the Holy One, blessed be He, gave an animal power to see more than the man, for just because he possesses sense his mind would become perturbed if he sees noxious beings.”[3] Balaam shows his true colors when he beats his donkey, not once or twice but three times. The donkey rightly challenges him, proclaiming “What have I done to you that you have beaten me three times?”[4] Balaam responds with a fiery rage, proclaiming “if I had a sword, I would kill you!”[5] To violate צער בעלי חיים, poorly treating one’s animals, is bad enough.  Again, like with Adam and Eve, Balaam’s eyes are opened, and he sees the angel with the sword. The angel tells Balaam, “If your donkey had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.”[6]

          There are so many lessons to draw from this story. First, there is often more present than meets the eyes. If we are frustrated or upset by what appears to be an injustice done to us, perhaps we don’t see the entire picture. Maybe God has not opened our eyes to what will truly be coming down the pike, or maybe there is a blessing in disguise. Secondly, rather than immediately react, we need to take a step back and thoughtfully respond. If we have issues controlling our temper like Balaam did, perhaps we need to take a step back and reevaluate our situation. Third and most importantly, we need to recognize that the one who sees may be a lower form of being than us, and that’s ok. Sometimes dogs or cats can sense things that we cannot and when they act strange, rather than hitting them or getting angry, we need to recognize that they might be doing so for a reason of which we are unaware.

          In beating the ass, Balaam truly becomes the ass. By the time his eyes are opened, it is too late. He has lusted after the important second group of messengers Balak sent his way, despite God commanding him not to go with them, and now he has to pay a price. While he does bless Israel, it is clear from the text’s perspective that Balaam was in such a rush to get to Israel to curse them that his donkey becomes a hindrance that must immediately be punished.

          Those who are talking heads, saying immediately what comes to their minds, are in danger of becoming talking asses, making a fool of themselves. They have tunnel vision or wing things rather than being thoughtful and introspective. The lesson for us is to avoid being like Balaam and if something strange happens, rather than reacting, finding a way to respond constructively to it. In so doing may we fulfill a blessing of Rosh Hashanah: that we shall always be the head rather than the tail.


[1]Numbers 22:23

[2] Genesis 3:24. It is also the only other section with a talking animal.

[3] Rashi on Genesis 3:24

[4] Numbers:28

[5] Numbers 22:29

[6] Numbers 22:33

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