Drash on Parashat Balak
Rabbi Aviva Kipen
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Summarising the link between the Torah portion and its Haftarah, the UAHC’s Haftarah Commentary explains on page 387 “The sidra tells the story of King Balak of Moab engaging Balaam, son of Be’or, to curse Israel – a curse that God turned into its opposite.” Right away, we are in an upside-down and back-to-front world. We journey with the freelance curser, who is riding a business class donkey towards his challenging assignment.
We are in rich agricultural land in a lane between two vineyards. Each is fenced and provides only a narrow path and no room to turn around and retreat. An angel from God stands to block the way and prevent Balaam from being taken to the curse site, but that angel can only be seen by the donkey and not by her rider. When the animal turns from the Angel despite the blows of her impatient master, his legs are squashed against the fences on each side, enraging the man to greater fury with his whip.
When the donkey has endured enough and the rider is still not alert to the presence that is attempting to prevent him making an “ass” of himself, the donkey speaks to him and brings him up to speed. The donkey makes more sense than both her employer and the king who tries to overcome the threat of so many Israelite strangers by employing Balaam.
Are you having trouble believing in the “talking donkey”? What’s the problem? One of the most talented characters in 1960s TV was an amiable horse called Ed, whose creators took him seriously enough to observe “People yakity-yak a streak and waste your time of day, but Mister Ed will never speak unless he has something to say …” and for six seasons, what Ed had to say was invariably more entertaining than anything his owner could come up with. Was Mister Ed’s character derived from the donkey in this week’s sidra? We can’t be sure, as Arthur Lubin (born Arthur William Lubovsky in Los Angeles in 1898) died in 1995 after a long, successful Hollywood career that included several other animal hits. Maybe he knew and liked the Torah’s most charismatic donkey and the rest became history?
But Ed never really went anywhere, whereas Balaam’s donkey had to go to and fro, from false starts to scouting trips and client conferences with the king. The Plaut/Stern commentary notes, quoting the Bavli Makkot 24a, that we have obligations to “go and do mitzvot, like bringing a bride to the chuppah (making it possible for her to be married) or … seeing to it that the dead are buried.” Whilst Balaam rode to and fro talking the talk, it was the donkey that walked the walk. We are invited to see that the human was the ‘donkey’ on this occasion and that insight is given to and can be refined by those who journey to do good in the world, avoid foolishness and prevent evil.
Mica invokes the memory of the upside-down events of our Torah portion and reminds us that there are no short cuts to doing the right thing. In one of the more-quoted aphorisms of the prophets, we are forcefully reminded that, regardless of different times, circumstances, characters and events, the right path to tread is the one of discernment and helpfulness as God has directed us: (6:6) “to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”