“The Power of Humility”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D., ‘11
Humans often refer to donkeys as the epitome of foolishness or stubbornness. But in cultures that are reliant on its help and support for human labor that is necessary to sustain life, donkeys are no joke.
Millennia before the appearance of such characters as Francis the Talking Mule, Mr. Ed, Dr. Doolittle’s aspirational “Talk To the Animals,” or the Donkey in William Steig’s book Shrek (and the subsequent movie franchise), the donkey that plays so central a role in Parshat Balak countered the human stereotype of the dumb animal. Balaam’s talking donkey possesses more than the ability to speak in human language: unlike its rider, this animal accurately perceives the power of the Divine.
In the mysterious mystical Jewish text Perek Shira (Chapter of Song), each element of creation sings a unique song to the Creator of All. Amidst all that inhabit the earth, the seas and the heavens, only the human being is absent. Perhaps it is the spaciousness of the silence that occurs in the absence of human voices that allows each creation to sing its own unique song to the Divine. “The Song of the Donkey” takes its text from I Chronicles 29:11— “For all of these are Yours, Adonai: the greatness, the strength, the beauty, the victory and the glory, everything in the heavens and the earth. Yours, Adonai, is the kingdom and the sovereignty to every leader.” Its song provides another example of the Donkey’s awareness of the Divine as the Source of All; as in Parshat Balak, the humble, often-mistreated and overlooked donkey comes to teach human beings. Brayed forth in a donkey-voice, it is a proclamation of the ways in which G-d is literally manifest in every aspect of creation.
Parshat Balak also holds interesting commonalities with other Jewish sacred texts. The Hebrew word for donkey, chamor, means “matter of clay,” a meaning synonymous with a lack of spiritual content. In its connection with Saul, David, Solomon and Absalom, the donkey is associated with royalty: Zechariah prophesized that the Messiah will ride into Jerusalem on a donkey. In Tractate Berachot 56b, the Talmud teaches that a dream in which a donkey appears symbolizes hope for salvation. And there is an ironic and powerful intra-textual donkey reference within the Torah: Balaam, a man as unlike the Abraham of the Akedah as we might imagine, also saddles up his donkey and sets out on a transformational journey that involves an angelic encounter and a Divine intervention.
A diviner who bargains with G-d and then disregards Divine instructions, Balaam is blinded by his own pride and covetousness to G-d’s power, G-d’s word, and G-d’s messenger. What he does respond to is the donkey’s refusal to obey—a refusal that saves his life but also forces him to hear. The man who does not heed the word of G-d listens to what the donkey says. The donkey’s speech opens Balaam’s ears and eyes: his immediate repentance is effected by his realization of his limitations as well as of the miraculous and infinite power of the Divine.
Balaam, too, is given the power of miraculous speech. He finds himself filled with the spirit of the Divine, unable to curse the Israelites, instead blessing them as he spontaneously, prophetically and poetically.
The story of Balaam and his talking donkey is embedded in Parshat Balak not as a moment of comic relief. It is a profoundly central lesson about our human proclivity to imagine ourselves more important and powerful than we actually are. The humble Donkey teaches us that we humans often fail see G-d’s messenger, even when that messenger stands before us. And in rebuking its rider, the Donkey reminds us of that we are obligated to acknowledge and appreciate our relationship with all of Creation—and to thank and bless the One who has given life to us all.