Balak: Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
“Beating Life Into Submission”
This week’s Torah portion retells one of the most peculiar stories in Torah; that of Balaam and his donkey. Balaam is a professional curser hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Hebrew tribes amassed at his borders, poised to invade his land. That morning, Balaam saddles his donkey and rides to meet Balak. Though the story ends with Balaam blessing—rather than cursing—the Hebrews, it is the side story of Balaam riding his donkey that is most intriguing. It is intriguing because, for one, the Torah—which is normally pithy in its narration—has no need to offer a lengthy description of Balaam’s ride. It adds nothing to the general narrative. Two, in the rare instances when Torah does detail episodes of characters’ lives, these are usually Israelites and certainly not their enemies. This story clearly begs for our attention.
Balaam is on his way to meet Balak. His donkey suddenly, and for no apparent reason, “swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass back onto the road.” [Num.22:23] A few minutes later, however, as Balaam was approaching vineyards enclosed by stone wall fences, the donkey veered off the road again, squeezing Balaam’s foot against one of the walls; “so he beat her again.” [Num. 22:25] Then once more, as the path narrowed, all of a sudden Balaam’s donkey stopped dead in her tracks and decided to “lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.” [Num.22:27]
This is us; you and me. This is us riding our metaphorical donkey on the road of life. Though we plan to ride in a straight line all the way to our imagined destination, life happens. And when life happens we can, sometimes, find ourselves far afield, having lost all sense of direction. When life happens and things don’t turn out the way we thought, we can hit a wall and get badly bruised. When life happens there can be moments when we find ourselves stuck, unable to move, faced with the impossibility of taking even one other step. And what tends to be our immediate reaction? Resistance. Unable to see the bigger picture, we fight what is, we beat life up in a futile attempt to get it back in line with our expectations. We are just like Balaam, unable to see beyond the claustrophobic limits of our own ego, hopelessly attached to our story, to our idea of how it all must unfold.
In our story, the donkey is the one able to see the bigger picture. She “caught sight of the angel of the Eternal standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand” [Num.22:23], that God—disapproving of Balaam’s errand—had sent to stop him. She is the one with a more inclusive perspective, trying to avoid confronting the angel by swerving or veering out of the way and with no other place to go, stopping altogether. Balaam is the one riding with blinders on. On the road of life, these blinders are our addiction to control. We insist, against all Laws of Nature, that life succumb to our will, unfold in a predictable planned-for manner, and we become miserable, angry and even violent when it inevitably does not. It is certainly important that we make plans, that we dream dreams, that we lead intentional lives, but it is as important as we do so to remember that we are not in control; that life does, indeed, happen, independently from our will and that—as Rabbi Rami Shapiro teaches—we can only at best learn to “navigate” its ups and downs along the way.