In this week’s parashah, we read of Bilaam hired by the King Balak to curse the Israelites. He sees the havoc the Israelites are wreaking on the local populace and reckons that plain fighting is not going to work. But a curse is different. It was believed that the power of words was so great that once uttered, there was little anyone could do. God intervenes to stop this happening.
God starts by sending dreams and visions to Bilaam telling him not respond to Balak’s summons. Then, God allows Bilaam to set out on the journey to meet Balak, but devises a lesson for him. This is the part of the story we will read this week.. God sends an angel which Bilaam either does not see - or maybe chooses not to see. The donkey however, does see the angel and refuses to move any further. This of course results in a thorough beating. The donkey turns round and says in effect, 'Hey, what are you doing?'
A talking donkey? The Rabbis of old were as incredulous as we and came up with a host of interpretations to explain this seemingly impossible feat. Moses Maimonedes suggests it was a dream. Samuel David Luzzatto, observes that the usual Hebrew word denoting speech 'daber' is missing here - suggesting the donkey did not actually 'talk' but made a noise which could be interpreted easily by Bilaam. The 13thC. philosopher Ibn Caspi is more creative.
'Let me tell you what happened to me a few years ago,’ he wrote. ‘Someone asked me - one of those people who are always looking for faults in others without seeing their own - whether I actually believed the ass really spoke. I answered him, without looking him in the eye. "As the Lord lives, I believe everything that is written in the Torah. So, why should I not believe when it says 'The ass said' and when it says 'The donkey spoke'?" ‘. He meant ‘You, Sir, are such an idiot, you prove asses can talk!'
What made this man such an idiot? The same reason we are often idiots - that we get hung up on the literal text and never think what it actually means. It doesn't really matter whether the donkey literally talked, - what is important - is why in the context of the story did the donkey speak? And the Rabbis give their answer - the beast is greater than the man.
God is the One who blesses and curses. Human beings don’t have the power so to change events. . What better way to show it than to put a man who thinks himself all powerful at the mercy of a dumb animal? There is irony in the choosing of a donkey. We talk of being dumb as an ass, yet this animal isn’t dumb, it talks. It isn’t stupid either - it knows more than Bilaam. We also talk of being stubborn as a donkey- yet it is not the donkey here that is being stubborn, but Bilaam.
We often think of ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. God made humanity ‘Little lower than the angels and crowned him with honour and glory’ (Psalm 8) In the story of Bilaam humanity is pictured as something lower than the animals. We act as if we own the place - but in reality we have less knowledge, less insight, and far less humility than they. With the world's current ecological crises, humanity’s short-sightedness and stupidity is being made evident. The lesson of Bilaam's Ass must be relearnt by us all. We are not all powerful. We are not in control. The animals know….