Parashat Balak: Prophecy and Leadership can come from the most unexpected places, OR Female Donkeys have much to teach us

Twice in Torah an animal speaks. The first is the Nachash, the serpent in the Garden of Eden whose conversation is instrumental in Eve eating the fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3); and the second is the donkey who three times tries to protect her owner (Balaam) from the wrath of God before her mouth is opened by God to challenge his behaviour. (Numbers 22)

Interestingly both animals speak in the interrogative as they initiate the conversation. The serpent has its own agency, approaching the woman without prior recorded interaction, and it clearly understands the reality of the situation they are in rather better than the woman does. The serpent asks her “Has God said that you should not eat of any tree in the garden?” and on being told that the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden was forbidden lest they die, the serpent says, quite truthfully – “you shall not die, for God knows that in the day that you eat it, then your eyes will be opened and you shall be like God, knowing good and evil”.  He does not seduce her to eat the fruit or even recommend that she eat it – he simply points out that the punishment she believes will follow is not the case, and instead a different outcome will emerge – the humans will have godlike qualities that currently they do not possess, the ability to make moral judgments.  The tree itself is beautiful, the fruit looks delicious, and the woman – now clear of her fear of death – eats and gives to her partner. There is nothing to warn of danger in the presentation of tree or fruit, and the intervention of the serpent seems a necessary catalyst for the human beings to take the next step.

In contrast, the donkey does not speak at first. She is simply trying to get out of the way of the angel by any route possible, squeezing herself and her rider into increasingly small spaces, and bearing the cruel punishment by Balaam in silence until eventually, when Balaam’s beatings of her become unbearable, God opens her mouth and she asks “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”  When Balaam answers “because you mocked me, I wish I had a sword in my hand for I would kill you”, she asks two more questions: “Am I not your donkey upon which you have ridden all your long life until today? Have I ever done this sort of thing before to you?” To which Balaam answers with one word: “No”.

Only then does God open Balaam’s eyes and he sees what the donkey has seen all along – the fiery angel standing in the way, who DOES have a sword in its hand. Balaam bows down and falls prostrate to the ground, and the angel of God asks the same question the donkey did – “Why have you beaten your donkey three times?” before going on to explain that the angel is there as an adversary (le’Satan), “because your way is contrary to me”

The serpent is “arum” – subtle or cunning (though it has another meaning of cautious and prudent). It is its own self, beholden to none.

The donkey ‘s personality is not described in the same way, but we understand her by her behaviour. Firstly, she can see the angel when no one else can – she is a perceptive animal. She only speaks when God ‘opens her mouth’, rather than from her own initiative, she has been Balaam’s donkey for many years and served him faithfully. Her questions are personal, immediate, and relational. “What have I done to you that you hurt me?” “Am I not your long term and faithful donkey?” “Have I ever done this before?”

She is a faithful servant, dedicated to helping and protecting the person she sees as her master – quite unlike the serpent who is an individual with agency, dedicated to – well who knows what? Truth? Mischief? Action?

In both cases the intervention of the animal allows their human interlocutor to perceive and know what the animal already knows. They seem to mediate divine revelation, albeit in different ways and with different outcomes. The serpent is punished, lowered, put in opposition to humankind. The donkey is defended by the angel who asks the same question she asked of Balaam, and it is made clear that while the angel might have killed Balaam, it had no intention of hurting the donkey.

I find it interesting that the donkey is not “Chamor חֲמוֹר” but an “aton  אֲתֹן” – very specifically she is a female donkey, her verbs are in the feminine, this is the deliberate presentation of a female protagonist.

I find it interesting too that the donkey is contextualised in relationship; her interventions are not grand or self-centred but to do with the bond and connection between her and Balaam. She doesn’t feel the need to tell him of the angel in the road, but to ask about what has happened between them that their rapport has failed and he is beating her.

I don’t see this as subservience, even though the donkey is clearly of low status in human society. Instead between the two stories I see two models of change. The first is hierarchical, the shrewd and calculating “catalyst figure” knows the information and by their line of questioning is leading the other person towards the information it wants them to know. The question is asked and the answer is challenged with the facts. The change happens but the outcome is not really happy for either protagonist.

In the second story, while the “catalyst figure” knows the information, it makes the assumption that the other also holds information, and it takes care of them and uses their relationship and the trust built up between them to allow the other to learn.  Even when there is a further intervention (when God opens the mouth of the donkey) she does not discuss the revelation in front of them but formulates her response around the relationship between them.

While it may be unfair to say that the first model is the “male” one and the second model of leadership the “female” one, it is I think true that generally female leadership is characterised by being more transformational, task focussed, collaborative and often indirect, whereas generally male leadership is characterised by being more transactional, hierarchical and focused on the achievement of the preferred outcome.  It is no surprise to me that the serpent is masculine but the donkey feminine.

The donkey provides a voice of gentle sanity in a story that describes testosterone fuelled attempts to increase power and demonstrate status in the world of the king and the prophet – and all the time the reader knows the added irony that the Children of Israel know nothing of what is going on, so that the grabs for more status and power are irrelevant to them. The great Seer Balaam proves to be a comically less able prophet than his donkey, the great King Balak’s frustration grows to almost laughable boiling point as he tries again and again to have his enemies cursed – paying a fortune to no avail. Again and again we are invited to understand that there is much more to the world than we can easily see; that the apparently important figures are in fact not so important in the larger scheme of things; that if we only pay attention to the surface or believe the publicity of those who claim leadership rights, then we are missing the complexity and connectedness, the way relationships and shared values organise or world.

There are many variants on the theme that behind every great man is a person supporting them selflessly to enable that greatness – usually a woman. But my two favourites which both speak to the story of Balaam and his female donkey are from popular culture.

John Lennon wrote (though not about Balaam) “As usual, there is a great woman behind every idiot.” And Harrison Ford opined “Behind every great man is a woman. Telling him he’s not so hot.”

The bible seems to agree. And the prophet Zechariah reminds us

גִּילִ֨י מְאֹ֜ד בַּת־צִיּ֗וֹן הָרִ֨יעִי֙ בַּ֣ת יְרֽוּשָׁלַ֔ם הִנֵּ֤ה מַלְכֵּךְ֙ יָ֣בוֹא לָ֔ךְ צַדִּ֥יק וְנוֹשָׁ֖ע ה֑וּא עָנִי֙ וְרֹכֵ֣ב עַל־חֲמ֔וֹר וְעַל־עַ֖יִר בֶּן־אֲתֹנֽוֹת:

Rejoice greatly O daughter of Zion, shout O daughter of Jerusalem, behold your king is coming to you, righteous and redeeming, poor and riding on a donkey (chamor), and upon the foal of a (female) donkey.

Come the messianic times, the child of that donkey who protected and supported her rider Balaam, will have the honour to bring the anointed one into Jerusalem.  The line of Balaam’s donkey will ascend into the service of the messiah. The line of the serpent in Eden will be lowly and in opposition to humankind.  Very different outcomes from the different interventions of the animals who speak.

 

 

Nitzavim Vayelech: Standing Up – for each other and for our common humanity.

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In Nitzavim Moses warns that “The secret things belong to the Eternal our God; but those things which are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this Torah.”  (Deuteronomy 29:28). It sounds perfectly reasonable as a sentence until one starts to look a little closer – what are the secret or hidden things being referred to here? What are the revealed? And why the need to state the distinction? It is an obscure verse and open to much conjecture.

Rashi understands this verse as one where Moses reassures the people who are standing and accepting the covenant for all time and all Jews – even those not yet born. They must be afraid that they will be held responsible for things about which they knew nothing, as part of some Jewish collective responsibility – indeed we are told in Talmud (Shevuot 39a) that” Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la zeh – all Israel are responsible, one for the other.” So in Rashi’s eyes Moses is explaining that any sins that were openly committed and that we might have been able to prevent or mitigate – these we remain responsible for. But actions done in secret, about which we can have no knowledge – these are left for God to deal with; and he goes on to explain that God will indeed punish sins that are not publicly known about, if they are not acknowledged or mitigated.

One of the great themes of the end of the book of Deuteronomy is ‘arvut’ – the mutual responsibility between Jews. As the leadership of Moses is coming to an end, he clearly foresees a splintering of the group, maybe the challenge of a number of different leadership candidates, and he does his best to prevent this by stressing the communal nature of our relationships with each other. So here we are reminded: we are part of a single people bound by a single covenant. We cannot afford to ignore what each other is doing, or to challenge what we see to be against the values of our tradition, or to excuse something as fringe or marginal or not impacting upon us.

There is a something else that adds to the oddity and opacity of this verse – in the scroll the words ‘for us and our children’ with dots over each letter. The reason for this scribal notification is not known, but it drags our attention to the verse asking for us to pay even more intense attention to it.

We read in the Talmud: Why are there dots over ‘for us and our children’ and the ayin of ‘ad’? To teach that they were not punished for the hidden things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan – the words of Rabbi Judah. Rabbi Nehemiah said to him: Is one ever punished for the hidden things? Doesn’t it say: to eternity? Rather, just as one is not punished for the hidden things, so they were not punished for the revealed things until the Jews had crossed the Jordan. (Sanhedrin 43b)

The Talmud seems to imply that the collective responsibility only comes into being once the Jews had arrived in the land, that the peoplehood only becomes absolute at the point they have a land. This idea has evolved as the Jewish people fulfilled the Abrahamic promise by being dispersed all over the world, and as the land became metaphor more than reality for so much of Jewish history to grow into a sense of collective arvut – of responsibility for more than our Jewish community but for the different communities of which we are part, and certainly our identities have become more complex and overlain with different relationships. We grow into our communities when we have shared purpose, shared values, shared space. But the dots over the phrase “for us and our children” direct us to look deeper and closer, and again Rashi comes to our aid. Rashi, (commenting on Psalm 87:6) suggests that “the hidden things are not sins, but people” – that while many Jews have left Judaism either through historical circumstance or through assimilation, and their children may never even know of their Jewish history and backgrounds, Rashi understands that their Jewish roots are never forgotten by God.

Now this may make some people uncomfortable. In Nitzavim we were entered into a covenant without either assent or consent – by our descending from Jewish parentage we are part of this covenant whether we like it or not. Jewishness is something that is given to us whether we wanted it or not. Similarly, the understanding of a verse around this covenant is that we can never escape it – even if we no longer are aware of being part of the Jewish people, by virtue of heritage all who descend from that time will find themselves brought back into it. One thing that it does do however is to bring into focus that we cannot really know anyone’s yichus, and that we should trust God’s judgement over our own. It also means that we cannot be narrow in our understanding of who is in our community, with whom we share responsibility – the obligation to care for others extends beyond the confines of family or known community, out to the whole human world – the arvut is rightly broadened out to include all the groups among whom we live.

This verse about the hidden and the revealed reminds us that we cannot know everything about the world. It reminds us that we have responsibility for what we do or should know about – and it also reminds us that one of the things we know is that we cannot know for sure where the boundaries of our community lie, only that they extend into the human race.

Danny Siegel wrote a wonderful poem which speaks to us in the same way, a poem I love to read and use to remind myself of the extensiveness of arvut:

“If you always assume/ that the person sitting next to you/ is the messiah/ just waiting for some simple human kindness/ You will soon come to weigh your words/ and watch your hands/ and attend to your responsibilities./ And/ if he so chooses/ not to reveal himself in your time/ It will not matter. (Danny Siegel, ‘A Rebbe’s Proverb (from the Yiddish)’)

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