The Angel, the Donkey and the Man

Balak:    Numbers 22:2–25:9

This week’s Torah reading is about a Moabite king, Balak, who calls Bilaam the seer to curse the children of Israel.

After being called by the king twice Bilaam goes, and here is the order of events: Bilaam gets up early in the morning, saddles his donkey, and goes towards his destination accompanied by two young men, his helpers.  En route an angel appears. He’s invisible to Bilaam but the donkey sees him and is frightened. We don’t hear anything more about the two young men, they may have returned to the original camp. The donkey, upset, talks to Bilaam and finally the angel, armed with a sword, appears and challenges the seer.

The story reminds me of an earlier narrative, the story of Abraham and Isaac going up to Mount Moriah. Early in the morning Abraham saddled his donkey, and went up the mountain with two young men. The donkey and the young men stopped part way while Abraham continued with Isaac. He was about to scarifice his son when an angel appeared and stopped him.

There are a number of similar elements in the two stories but Bilaam’s narrative has been turned upside down.

Most notably, Gd spoke to both of these men, not a common occurrence in the Bible. Abraham and Bilaam each hastened to get a start on their trek, but Abraham was carrying out Gd’s instructions and Bilaam was carrying out Balak’s directive. The donkey and the angel each helped Abraham (the donkey by  carrying provisions) whereas the angel and donkey both criticized Bilaam for his actions. Finally, the angel stopped Abraham’s sword but in the second story the angel brandished his sword at Bilaam.

Bilaam finally accepted that he had to bless the children of Israel in Gd’s name. He finished off with words that are said each day in synagogue.Balakart by Laya Crust

The message of the parsha is that when we are faced with a situation we have to look at the situation itself and listen carefully to our conscience. (That’s what Bilaam should have done.)  Angels, and in this case the talking donkey, are prophetic visions according to the Rambam (Maimonides) . Prophetic visions for the ordinary person may be deep thought that takes us to the correct answer to a difficult or morally challenging question. It may well be that Bilaam knew that he should have been listening to Gd, not Balak, but he was worried about the repercussions of ignoring a king. The vision of the talking donkey and the sword brandishing angel were his conscience giving him the answer he knew was right.

Next time you have a moral dilemma think deeply about the wise lessons you have learned and they will point you in the right direction.

Balak’s prayer was:

“How goodly are your tents, Jacob and your dwelling places  Israel

The text poetically continues, ” stretching out like brooks like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by Gd, like cedars by water.”

If you find these ideas interesting share them with your friends. And let me know what you think by sending me a comment.

Have a Shabbat Shalom,


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