A talking donkey?!
Many of us likely remember the delightful character, Donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy, from Dreamworks’ Shrek, released almost 20 years ago.
But the story of a talking donkey was not original to Dreamworks. Indeed, a talking donkey plays a key role in this week’s Torah portion, Chukat-Balak.
At this point in their journey, the Israelites continue to wander through the desert, warring with hostile kings, searching for food and water, and fending off vicious animals. It’s a story filled with trials, challenges, and adventure — not unlike the Shrek franchise!
The Moabite King, Balak, sees how the people of Israel have prevailed in their battles against strong and powerful kingdoms, and he becomes nervous… What if his kingdom is next?
In a drawn-out and detailed episode, Balak sends for Balaam, who we might categorize as a local shaman or seer. Balak’s request to Balaam? To put a curse on the Israelites so that they may be defeated in battle. Balaam accepts his task but warns the king: “I can only utter the word that God puts into my mouth” (Num. 22:38). In other words, Balaam is just the messenger; it’s God who calls the shots.
Balaam heads out (with his talking donkey in tow, of course) to the encampment of the Israelites to fulfill his mission of cursing them. But as soon as he approaches, though he tries to curse the Israelites, a blessing spills from his mouth:
“Who can count the dust of Jacob, or number the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright, May my fate be like theirs!” (Num. 23:10).
Balak, furious, asks Balaam to try again. And the second time, despite his efforts, he recites another blessing:
“No harm is in sight for Jacob, No woe in view for Israel. The Eternal their God is with them” (Num. 23:21).
Balak gives him one last chance, but to no avail. On his third attempt to curse the Israelites, Balaam bestows another blessing in its place:
“How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (Which is, of course, the translation of the Hebrew song, Mah Tovu). (Num. 24:5).
Alas, the Israelites receive three blessings in the place of three curses, and Balak and Balaam part ways.
The narrative is suspenseful and gripping. But the question is never asked: Why are the Israelites immune to Balaam’s curses? What was their powerful defense against damnation?
The Talmud provides an interesting and unexpected answer:
“We ask: What was it that Balaam saw that so inspired him? He saw that the entrances of their tents were not aligned with each other, ensuring that each family enjoyed a measure of privacy. And he said: If this is the case, these people are worthy of having the Divine Presence rest on them” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bava Batra, page 60a).
The Talmud tells us that the Israelites, through a time of uncertainty and hardship while wandering in the desert, were still decent to one another. They tried to protect each family’s privacy. They tried to respect each other, even when it likely took great fortitude and effort. They treated each other with humanity, even when it was hard.
How will we, as a community of Jews and as members of our nation, bring blessings upon ourselves and our society? The Talmud gives us the answer: we become worthy of blessing when we treat all our fellow humans with deep respect and love, even when doing so isn’t easy.
As we celebrate the Fourth of July, the day of America’s Independence, may we respect one another when our opinions differ, may we engage with one another even when we are forced to stay apart, and may we support one another through the uncertainty of it all. If we can do this, we can withstand anything.