Balak: The Way of the Donkey

Abraham rises early. Gathering his scattered thoughts
he fumbles with the straps and saddles up the donkey.
Setting on his way, he ponders the unthinkable.
Climbing up the mountain, the mist gives way to warmth
and rolling waves of faith suffuse his troubled heart.

Moses heeds God’s mandate recalling him to Egypt,
sending him to set the people free.
He takes his wife and children and mounts them on a donkey;
walking alongside with his eyes on the horizon,
he garners strength to face the work ahead.

Bil’am vaults aboard, riding forth assuredly,
shuttering his mind to the utterance of God –
but the jennet undermines him. Repeatedly he thrashes her
until she turns and speaks to him of truth:
the messenger of God is unveiled before his eyes.

Abigail mounts the donkey; pale complexion flushed,
her mind swings like a pendulum:
from churlish man to wrathful lord and back.
The breeze blows on her face as she meets the future king;
stepping down serenely, she offers words of peace.

The Shunamite woman rides the donkey wildly,
her lifeless son clutched tightly in her arms.
Her heart pulsates ferociously, her steed lopes calmly on.
Her panic is allayed as she contemplates the prophet
whom she prays will restore to her a living child.

When the son of David comes,
he will be righteous and soft-spoken,
humbly mounted on a lowly foal.
Slowly and steadily, listening intently,
he will navigate the path: the harbinger of peace.

In Hebrew, the name of something proclaims its essence. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 17:4) teaches that Adam was charged with divining the essence of every animal and naming it accordingly. The donkey is characterized by carrying heavy, physical burdens, and the Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the word for a donkey,”chamor” derives from the word “chomer” meaning material or physical. Donkeys are mentioned numerous times in the Tanach, both in respect to laws pertaining to treatment of animals, particularly beasts of burden, as well as being a measure of wealth (there are many allusions of wealthy biblical characters owning many oxen, sheep, camels and donkeys). However, in addition, they also seem to appear in several places where some sort of spiritual transformation is occurring. The most startling example of this is, of course, in this week’s parasha. In the beginning of the parasha, the king of Moab, Balak, sends messengers to call for the prophet Bil’am to curse the Israelites. God warns the latter not to comply, and so Bil’am repeatedly declines, but later in the night, God appears to him in a dream and permits him to go, provided he only speaks God’s words.
Accordingly, the next morning, he saddles his she-ass (jennet) and sets off with the messengers, but the animal sees an angel barring the way and turns aside. Bil’am thrashes her, and each time she tries to bypass the angel, she cannot get by, and in trying, she squashes Bil’am’s foot against the wall. He continues to beat her, and then she suddenly speaks to him, demanding he consider whether she has been in the habit of disobeying him. He is forced to confess that she hasn’t. Then God uncovers his eyes and he sees the angel who was there all along. He then proceeds to perform God’s will.
We find the donkey too in the following places where something more than mere transportation seems to be going on:
Abraham saddles up his donkey as he sets forth to offer his son Isaac. He does not understand how this demand fits in with God’s promise to him, but he finds the faith to obey. (Bereishit 22:3)
Moses, having fled from Egypt after killing the taskmaster and realizing that the deed was known, seeks refuge in Midian. God appears to him in the burning bush and tells him of the role he is to play in delivering the people, and Moses argues that he is not a good choice. However, God insists and in Shemot 4:19, God tells Moses who is still in Midian, that the time has come. Moses overcomes his reticence, takes Tsipporah and their two sons, mounts them on a donkey, and sets off.
In Samuel I 25, we read of a churlish man named Nabal who angers the warlord David by refusing his friendly overtures. David vows revenge, and gathers his outlaws, but Nabal’s wise and beautiful wife Abigail, riding a donkey, sets out to avert the catastrophe, and defuses David’s anger with conciliatory words.
In Kings II 4, we read of the Shunamite woman, who periodically hosts the prophet Elisha in her home during his nomadic visits. Her long-awaited son suddenly dies of sunstroke and she saddles an ass and goes to find Elisha, who, indeed performs a miracle and the child is resuscitated.
Finally, in Zechariah, (9:9) we learn that the Messiah, when he comes, will ride on a donkey. The Soncino commentary notes, “The king of peace will come, not like a worldly conqueror, riding on a war-horse, (for horses and chariots will be no more, as stated in the next verse) but in humility, riding on an ass, the animal used for peaceful purposes.”

In a commentary on Parashat Balak from 2011, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan considers the role of the donkey in the Tanach. She submits that the image of travelling with the donkey hints at a spiritual process: “First comes a ritual preparation, “saddling up the donkey.” Next comes an extended listening, “riding the donkey.” These steps lead to an understanding of the message, reaching the destination and “dismounting.” These are the steps that Avraham used to find faith; Avigail used to find words of peace; and the Shunamite woman used to find healing.” Rabbi Duhan Kaplan adds that in Bil’am’s case, at first his ability to listen is blocked by his anger, but finally the ass opens his eyes and he performs God’s will. She concludes that “the prophet Zechariah teaches that we never outgrow our need for this method. He declares that the renewed leader of Israel – the Mashiach — will be “just, victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Yes, the gifted leader will have already cultivated stellar middot, stellar inner qualities. But the leader will not rest in personal qualities alone. The leader will be guided by God’s inner presence along the right path, speaking words of peace, and finding healing.”


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