Drash on Parashat Balak
Rabbi Esther Jilovsky, PhD
2021 High Holy Days Rabbi, Temple David, Perth, WA
In the early days of the Covid pandemic, rainbows began to appear in front windows across Australia. As shops, schools, offices and airports closed indefinitely, much of our everyday lives suddenly disappeared. Our new reality comprised of lockdowns, home-schooling, working from home, and the ubiquitous online platform Zoom. The freedom to travel, which until so recently had allowed us to traverse our planet in 24 hours or so, was reduced to our house and our street, maybe our suburb if we were lucky.
It was a strange feeling. Confined in a way that many of us were not accustomed to, separated from loved ones interstate or overseas, and not knowing when, or even if, the freedom we had enjoyed pre-pandemic might return.
Yet, as I walked around Melbourne last winter, I found myself noticing small details I might otherwise have missed. The stark beauty of trees as they shed their final autumn leaves. The quiet of the mornings absent of rush-hour traffic and the school run. The sound of the world taking a deep breath.
We don’t always see what’s right around us, unless we take the time to look. In the Torah this week we read Parashat Balak, which tells the story of the prophet Balaam. We read: “He [Balaam] was riding on his she-donkey, with his two servants alongside, when the donkey caught sight of the angel of the Eternal standing in the way” (Numbers 22:22-23). The donkey swerves, but Balaam, blind to what is right in front of him, beats her to continue straight. And once again, the angel of the Eternal appears. The donkey, who can see the angel, moves out of the way, and Balaam beats her. And the third time, the angel appears right in front of the donkey “on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the donkey now saw the angel of the Eternal, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the donkey with his stick” (Numbers 22:26-27). Balaam cannot see what is right in front of him, and assumes that the donkey stubbornly and defiantly disobeys him.
In scene reminiscent of Aesop’s fables or a Disney film, it’s the donkey herself who speaks next: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” she cries angrily (Numbers 22:28). Only at this point does the Eternal open Balaam’s eyes. Finally, he can see the angel of the Eternal blocking the way (Numbers 22:31). It is only after God opened his eyes and made the angel visible to him, that he could truly see.
When the world lurched to a stop in March 2020, most of our lives changed immeasurably. Our cities, devoid of traffic, commuters and office workers, with shops, schools, restaurants and playgrounds closed for months at a time, became quiet, lonely shadows of their former selves. Yet autumn leaves still fell, and winter arrived with its stark beauty. I noticed the spidery veins of fallen leaves, languishing burnt orange in the gutters before they were washed away by cold winter rains. Neighbours walked by rugged up in warm winter coats and cosy scarves, eyes smiling above their masks. Rainbows and teddy bears appeared in front windows, and colourful chalk drawings emerged on footpaths. There was still so much to see, if only you knew where to look.