In the Wildness - Asilomar 2019
I’m going to be speaking about this week’s Torah portion, Numbers 22:2 through Numbers 25.9; in Hebrew “Numbers” is “BaMidbar”—“In the Wildness”--and its connection to the topic of our Asilomar weekend, Judaism and nature.
The entire book of Numbers, BaMidbar, has the previously enslaved Israelites wandering in the desert.
The main story in this portion features Balaam, a non-Jewish seer or prophet. The portion occurs during the sojourn of the Israelites in the plains of Moab, east of the Jordan River, at the close of 40 years of wandering, shortly prior to the death of Moses and the crossing of the Jordan River. The Israelites, who are numerous, over 600 thousand adult men alone in this supposed dangerous “immigrant hoard,” have already defeated two kings in Transjordan. That’s why Balak, the King of Moab, is alarmed and wants Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet (I know we have two quite similar names here) to curse the Israelites.
Balak, the Moabite king, offers riches. But Balaam says he cannot go, that God has come to him in a dream and told him not to go and furthermore that he, Balaam, can only speak what God wants him to speak.
So, in this portion we have two people, Balak and Balaam, both non-Hebrews, with similar names; we have God speaking at length to a non-Hebrew prophet, Balaam; we have curses changed to blessings and we have an animal who not only speaks but carries on a conversation with a person.
And yes, this portion contains the part where Balaam, the non-Hebrew seer, is commanded (by Balak) to curse the immigrant hoard but instead changes the curse to the famous blessing, which we all sing and recite and which was the inspiration for the architecture of our sanctuary at Beth Am:
“How good are your tents, O Jacob, your tabernacles, Israel. They spread like palms, like gardens by a river, like aloes G-d planted, like cedars by water.”
But the strange parable I’d like to examine this morning is the part about the talking donkey, which comes prior to the famous blessing Balaam bestows.
Balak the Moabite king wants Balaam to come to him. God doesn’t want Balaam to go. But Balaam sets out anyway on a donkey and with two male servants (echoes here of Abraham and the binding of Isaac) heading for the king. God is angry. God sends an angel to stop him on his way.
We have not only a talking donkey but also a man, Balaam, who seems to not be surprised by the talking animal. He has a conversation with the donkey. Also, the magical number three here—an integral part of all folklore tales (three little pigs, three blind mice, three billy goats gruff, etc). We have groups of three or three incidents, each getting worse. Here the donkey encounters the angel three times, Balaam beats his donkey three times.
The donkey can see that which the seer cannot. The donkey sees the Angel, the messenger from God. The donkey speaks eloquently, as well as the prophet, in fact; the donkey is an emissary of God and sees danger where Balaam sees an open road to opportunity, fame and riches. Balaam is blind to what is before him, still closed and focused on himself and the gains to be made by doing the king’s bidding. He is so focused that he wants to kill the divinely inspired donkey
Why did God cause the donkey to engage in human speech? The donkey speaks in order to wake Balaam up. To make him make him really see—to see so clearly that he would change his course of action, his path to the king, his path to fame and to riches.
According to medieval commentator, Rabbeinu Bechaye of 13-14th century Spain, God gives human speech to a lowly beast of burden, God performed such an extraordinary miracle, for the express purpose of shocking Balaam. “STOP YOUR TRAVEL! STOP DOING WHAT YOU ARE DOING!”
If the very word of God had not helped deter Balaam, for God had forbade him before this, then maybe a talking ass would.
Other traditional commentaries also say that Balaam knew he was doing wrong in heading to King Balak and the fame and riches Balak promised him, but that he ignored his conscience due to greed. Indeed the Talmud lists three morally corrupt qualities for Balaam, whom it calls, rasha—wicked. They are an evil eye, haughty bearing and an avaricious spirit.
So how does this strange tale relate to the theme of this weekend’s theme of Judaism and Nature? Aren’t our fellow creatures speaking to us? Calling to us? Screaming to us to pay attention to our world? Don’t they see what we do not?
They act and react through instinct but aren’t they speaking to us, their fellow beings? From the tiniest bee to the humpback whale; from the whispering of our ocean’s phytoplankton which provide no less than 65 per cent of the world’s oxygen and can only exist in cold waters, not warm, acidic seas, upon which hundreds of thousands of creatures depend; from the lowing of cattle incarcerated in factory farms to the songs of birds being driven to extinction.
Fellow life forms on earth are calling to us and have been for a long time now. It is up to us to wake up, to change our ways, just as Balaam does in the story of his talking ass.
I’d like to end with two quotes from Jewish sages.
Rabbi Isaac Luria taught, “even the most mute objects, such as stones and dust and water possess nefesh (souls) and spiritual vitality.”
The Baal ShemTov, founder of Hasidism, said, “A man should consider himself as a worm [or maybe a donkey], and all other small animals should be regarded as his friends in the world, for all of them [man and all other species] are all created” by God.
And, finally, this story is in the book of Numbers, but you recall that the Hebrew name for this book of the Torah is “BaMidbar” “In the Wilderness”. The English name, Numbers, connotes counting, collecting, gathering, accumulating. BaMidbar, Wilderness, is open, free, specious, and eternal.
Heeding the lessons that are offered up in the wilderness will allow humankind to exist on our precious earth. From the wilderness comes wisdom.