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Animals and Humans Have a Singular Purpose

June 24, 2010 By:
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell
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The parshah known as Balak has delighted and confounded readers for centuries. This portion includes the unlikely story of a blind seer and an animal that not only sees an agent of the Holy One, but is blessed with the gift of speech, which she uses to reprimand her clueless master.

The talking she-donkey, or jenny, had always seemed to me to be a literary device. As a new dog owner, I read this story of Balaam and his donkey with a deeper appreciation for the essential loyalty and faithfulness of animals that serve humans, and with an awakened sense of the interdependence between God's creatures.

The portion begins as Balak, king of Moab, hires Balaam, purported to be a prophet and diviner, to curse Israel. The Holy One intervenes, thwarting Balak's plan by sending a divine messenger to block Balaam's path. Balaam's she-ass, who is never named, sees the angel and leaves the path.

Balaam beats the animal. Then the she-ass "pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam's foot against the wall," and Balaam beats her again. When the angel "stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left," the jenny lay down under Balaam, and he beat her a third time.

"Then the Holy One opened the ass's mouth," and she asks her owner, "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? ... Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?" Balaam was forced to answer, "No."

Professor Laurie Patton's poem, "Balak," quoted in The Torah: A Women's Commentary, introduces us to a dog who pulls a book off a library shelf and opens it to "the chapter on writing/about animals." The poem continues: "And the dog looked up/amidst the snowy crumbs/of chewed paper/and that curtain -- /that frustrating scrim/between animals like me/and the ones like him -- /was lifted/in our startled gaze."

Balaam's she-ass, for just one moment, is granted the gift of speech. And in that moment, she pleads to be seen not as a beast of burden, but as a faithful companion -- as a being created by the Holy One. This story reminds us that animals share our essential destiny: to serve our Creator. That service demands open eyes and open hearts, but does not require speech.

'That Frustrating Scrim'
God turns Balaam's curse into a blessing. The prophet's words have become an integral part of Jews' morning prayers. "Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov/mishkenatecha, Yisrael: How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" The tents and dwelling places of Israel that Balaam blesses are teeming with life, with humans and animals who live together in a verdant and self-sustaining community of praise.

Perhaps this portion can lift "that frustrating scrim" that keeps us from seeing that God's angels are often before us, sometimes blocking, sometimes clearing our path.

Perhaps, like Balaam, we, too, would be well served by listening with greater attention to the animals with whom we share our lives. They may sense the presence of angels when we cannot.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism. E-mail her at: slelwell@urj.org.


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