When A Donkey Sees What Wise Men Can’t


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8;12 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 22:2- 25:9 
Haftarah: Micah 5:6-6:8
Havdalah: 9:21 p.m.

‘No black magic can be effective against Jacob, and no occult powers against Israel” [Numbers 23:23].

Who controls the fortune and destiny of nations? Does the ebb and flow of history turn ordinary individuals into heroic personalities, or do heroes create for themselves the historic opportunities? Perhaps it is neither, but rather God, Ruler of the Universe, who plans and controls the moves on the great earthly chess board in order to provide the end-game which has been His purpose from the beginning of time.

But what of the soothsayers or magicians, such as Balaam, who claim to know the secret formulas to manipulate God and change reality to conform to their designs?

These are precisely the issues being dealt with in this week’s supernatural, eerie, comical, lyrical and prophetic portion of Balak.  This portion follows the Israelites to their encampment on the plains of Moab and concludes just after the Israelites begin to behave immorally with the Moabite and Midianite women. Its narrative style is very different from most of the verses that precede and follow it. Indeed, it could be removed from the Book of Numbers without affecting the storyline whatsoever.

Balaam enters the scene after the Israelites have gone through desert rebellions and reorganizations. They finally seem to be succeeding, defeating several of the smaller Canaanite nations and preparing the next generation to enter the Land of Israel. The unasked question throughout the portion is: who or what will ultimately be responsible for the success — or failure — of the Israelite nation in history?

Balak, the king of Moab, is in mortal fear of the new “power” on the block, which defeated the mighty Egyptians and now seems to be “licking up everything around them” [Numbers 22:4]. As the Israelitres inch closer to Moab and Midian, Balak convinces the elders of Midian to join him in hiring Balaam, a magical soothsayer, to curse and defeat Israel through his powers of the occult. Balaam informs them that he, too, is under the power of God, and that even he is not able to curse those who are blessed by God. However, Balaam declines the job offer in such a way as to let his “clients” know that he will nevertheless attempt to manipulate God into allowing Israel to be cursed. What follows is both comical and at the same time profound.

Our Sages declare that “God leads individuals in the path they wish to follow,” but when Balaam saddles his donkey to travel with the Moabite king, suddenly his donkey refuses to proceed, turning off the road. The donkey sees what Balaam can’t: An angel will not allow Balaam to go further. God’s angel is preventing the donkey from advancing with Balaam and Balak. The donkey then speaks, and, in so doing, demonstrates that speech — and blessings — are from God. If God wishes a donkey to speak it will speak; if God wishes Israel to be blessed, Israel will be blessed. Blessings or curses can only come from God.

Balaam, the venal, virulent “prophet,” still tries to manipulate God. He and Balak attempt to bribe God with sacrifices to allow the cursing of the Israelites, but to no avail. In the end, Balaam instead expresses the most magnificent of blessings: “This is a nation with the ability to dwell alone, which does not have to be counted amongst other nations…” [Num. 23:9]. “No black magic can be effective against Israel and no occult powers against Jacob…” [Num. 23:23]. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your tabernacles, O Israel… [Num. 24:5]. “A star shall go forth from Jacob, and a ruling scepter from Israel…” [Num. 24:17]. “Israel shall emerge triumphant… in the end, Amalek will be destroyed forever” [Num. 24:19–20].

With that, “Balaam set out and returned home. Balak also went on his way” [Num. 24:25]. But this is not how the portion concludes. As Chapter 25 opens, the Israelites behave immorally with Moabite women, and a prince of the tribe of Simon publicly fornicates with a Midianite princess. A horrific plague overtakes the Israelites and Israel seems to be vanquished until Pinchas and eventually Moses punish the wrongdoers, thereby inspiring national repentance.

The message is clear. Israel is to be blessed — but only if we serve God (and not idols) and act morally and ethically. Israel’s success or lack of success is not dependent on voodoo men, black magic operators, even solely on God’s will. It is ultimately dependent on our own moral actions.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat.