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.

 

 

Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.