Rabbi Lisa Edwards’ Weekly 10 Minutes of Torah (Week 7)
Our own Rabbi Lisa Edwards was chosen to give “10 Minutes of Torah” for nine weeks at the Reform Judaism’s website. Subscribe to “10 Minutes of Torah”
It’s June – the month famous for weddings and for gay pride parades all over the world. June was chosen for “pride” events to commemorate the June 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village – a significant milestone in the gay liberation movement.
Almost every year at Jerusalem’s Parade for Pride and Tolerance, counter-protesters bring live donkeys (or sometimes cardboard cutouts of donkeys) to symbolize what they label as the “bestial nature” of the pride parade. It’s sad that religious people protest against the advocates of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) pride and pleas for tolerance. The counter-protesters’ choice of “beasts” is ironic: of all the animals, why would Jews well-versed in Torah choose donkeys for this purpose?
It’s certainly ironic, given the intrepid donkey who plays a major role in the story told in this week’sParashat Balak.
The extraordinary story of the prophet Balaam and his talking she-donkey is a narrative about humans who think they know best, and come to learn otherwise. Balaam is hired by King Balak to curse the people Israel, saying, “since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6). Attempting to accommodate the King’s request, Balaam heads out on his donkey toward the Israelite camp, but along the way the donkey swerves three times in an attempt to protect Balaam from a threatening angel of God that only the donkey can see. More infuriated each time the donkey stops or swerves, Balaam beats her harshly three times. In a last attempt to protect herself and Balaam, the donkey actually talks to Balaam in his own language, saying “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” (22:28). Unrepentant, Balaam replies, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you!” (22:29).
Here’s a good argument for gun (sword) control.
The donkey then says, “ ‘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 [Balaam] answered, ‘No’ ” (22:30). Balaam offers no apology to his devoted donkey nor does he ever express surprise that she speaks his language!
The contemporary British rabbi, theologian, and Bible scholar Jonathan Magonet asks a simple question in his essay entitled: “How a Donkey Reads the Bible – On Interpretation.” If you were a donkey reading the Bible, what would you look for? His answer: you would look for stories about donkeys. There are quite a few, as it turns out, and the one in this week’s Torah portion tops the list. And you wouldn’t just look for the stories, Rabbi Magonet notes; you might also put a different spin on them than, say, the prophet Balaam would (or than a religious protester against the Jerusalem Parade for Pride and Tolerance would). But you don’t have to be a donkey to recognize that Balaam’s unnamed she-donkey is the hero of this story. The brave talking donkey, equal parts wisdom and humor, is an amazement – so much so that the Rabbis list her mouth as one of the ten extraordinary creations that God created at twilight just before the first Shabbat, along with the rainbow, manna, and other creations (Pirkei Avot 5:6).
The final verse of this week’s haftarah, from the prophet Micah (6:8), also provides insight into the story of Balaam and his donkey. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut offers a poignant translation of this well-known verse: “Mortals/People have told you what is good, but what does the Eternal seek from you? Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
In this Torah portion, the mortals Balak and Balaam demonstrate what they think is good, namely: to fear alien people (in this case, the Israelites); to take up arms against them; to curse them; to use violence against an innocent animal; to punish those who disagree with them; to allow anger to rage out of control; not to listen to advice or information; and to use a God-given talent (blessing and cursing) in the service of murder.