The Torah portion for July 16, 2022 is Balak (Numbers 22:2 -25:9). Some of what happens in Balak is familiar: idolatry, divinely-sanctioned death penalties, and a plague. But, did you know that this parshah has a talking female donkey who stands up to abusive behavior? Perhaps not. That talking donkey and the larger story of Balak’s attempt to curse the Israelites raises questions about gender, how we treat animals, choices, free will, violence, courage, and having one’s eyes open to what is really happening around one’s self. All of which is what we will be looking at today.
Balak begins with this story about Balaam. The Moabite king, Balak, wishes to curse the Israelites because he is worried about their size and their impact on the land and its current inhabitants (22:3-4). He sends representatives to bring Balaam, a powerful man whose curses and blessings have tangible effects on their recipients (22:6), to him. Balaam meets with those representatives and tells them to wait; he has to talk to the deity in order to know what to do. The deity commands Balaam to stay put and to not curse the Israelites, for they are blessed (22:12). Indeed, a first in quite a while.
Balak’s messengers return without Balaam and so Balak sends more of them with higher ranks (22:15) begging him to come with them. Each time he gets the same response. No. Balaam stands firm, saying that even a “house full of gold and silver” (22:18) would not convince him to do something contrary to divine will. Oddly, that night the deity says that if he must go with Balak’s men, he can. However, he cannot and will not curse the Israelites. Balaam decides to go to Balak.
This decision angers the deity, and here is where the female donkey enters the story. To go to Balak, Balaam rides his female donkey, a companion of many years. On the road, the donkey sees an angel with a sword in their hand sent by the deity. Undoubtedly, with a weapon, it means Balaam harm. She walks into the field to avoid the angel and thus protect Balaam (22:23). Balaam beats her for turning off the road.
In the next encounter between the donkey, Balaam, and the angel, they are in a vineyard. The donkey attempts to avoid the angel standing on the vineyard path between two walls. In doing so, the donkey walks so close to the wall that Balaam’s leg is pressed against the wall (22:25). He beats her again.
In the last encounter between the angel, the donkey, and Balaam, the angel appears in such a narrow place that there was no where for the donkey to go. So, she cowers down under Balaam instead (22:27).
How does Balaam respond? Quite predictably by beating her again. After this third beating, the deity opens the donkey’s mouth so that she can speak (22:28). Immediately, she asks Balaam why he is beating her (22:28). Balaam responds that she has humiliated him and threatens to kill her (22:29). She questions him again. “Am I not your donkey who you have ridden for a long time? Do I normally behave this way?” All he could say to her was no (22:30).
The deity shows the angel to Balaam. Balaam promptly prostrates himself. The deity asks Balaam why he was beating the donkey and explains to him that without the donkey, Balaam would have been killed, while the donkey would have lived (22:33). Balaam knows he has done wrong, both for beating the donkey and for setting out to Balak. There is more to the story, but I want to stop here and look at the interaction between Balaam, the donkey, the angel and the deity.
The writers of the Torah made an interesting choice here in that the donkey is both an animal and a female. Why does the Torah do this? There are a few possibilities. First, they chose the lowest of society: a female and an animal. Perhaps they did this to juxtapose the unrighteous actions of Balaam to the seemingly helpless being and thus make the deity’s condemnation of Balaam all the more poignant. Another option is that that sort of behavior on Balaam’s part would have been a normal response to an animal, regardless of sex, who did not follow their master. Thus the story shows Israel how to treat animals.
What is interesting here is that the writers of the Torah gave the donkey the ability to reason and choose. Not only that, but she knows more about what is actually happening than Balaam does. The Torah portrays her as intelligent and thoughtful.
Yet, she continues to choose to protect Balaam despite being beaten for it. Does Balaam deserve protection given his abusive behavior? Surely not. Parshah Balak makes that clear. First, the deity grants the donkey the ability to speak. She immediately and bravely questions Balaam as to why he has beaten her. Soon after, the deity also speaks out against Balaam’s actions towards the donkey and makes him keenly aware that if it wasn’t for his smart donkey, he would already be dead. Balaam comes off as as irrational, hot-headed fool who continuously decides poorly, while the female donkey is the hero.
Parshah Balak shows us that attempts to control others through the use of violence does not work. No matter how much Balaam beats the donkey, the donkey continues to do what she deems righteous. At the same time, she does not condone Balaam’s violence. Backed up by the deity and given the opportunity, she speaks up and calls out his abusive, controlling behavior. She is courageous and strong in her stance for justice.
Be her. Be brave. Speak truth to power. Stand up for choice. All that is holy has your back and speaks with you.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.