This year I read one of those books that you keep returning to, a book that gave coherence to my own half-formed thoughts and startled me into a journey of self-recognition and definition. The book was Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In a post at the time, I quoted him:
“In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari talks about the evolution of religions from animism to polytheism to monotheism. Of animism, he says, ‘When animism was the dominant belief system, human norms and values had to take into consideration the outlook and interests of a multitude of other beings, such as animals, plants, fairies and ghosts…Hunter-gatherers picked and pursued wild plants and animals, which could be seen as equal in status to Homo sapiens. The fact that man hunted sheep did not make sheep inferior to man, just as the fact that tigers hunted man did not make man inferior to tigers. Beings communicated with one another directly and negotiated the rules governing their shared habitat.’
”Conversely, ‘farmers owned and manipulated plants and animals, and could hardly degrade themselves by negotiating with their possessions. Hence the first religious effect of the Agricultural Revolution was to turn plants and animals from equal members of a spiritual round table into property.’”
“Plants and animals…equal members of a spiritual round table…” Those words and the spiritual space they created for me helped me sharpen my focus in the Torah study project I had undertaken and gain a slightly different perspective. The idea that life other than human has an equal place at the spiritual round table resonates deeply with me. I like to imagine that the world in the first three chapters of Genesis was both memory and vision even though in general, the Torah asserts the sanctity and superiority of human life. The world of the Garden is a world in which humans negotiated with other animals the rules governing their shared habitat.
That world receded for me as I progressed through the Torah story this time, although as I worked my way through it, I was alert to the animals’ story and surprised at how it paralleled the human story. Finally, I got stuck in the pages of Leviticus, a book I have always appreciated for its literary artistry and applied theology, a theology expressed through the body. This time, though, I was put off by the clinical descriptions of dissecting animal bodies, animals killed in substitution for human lives that in the Torah world should have been forfeit.
I appreciate that Leviticus represents a deep consciousness of the preciousness of all life and of human moral responsibility in relation to it, something we often lack in today’s world where life and death and brutality happen far away from us in hidden spaces. Yet as hard as I tried to understand what animal sacrifice meant to those who practiced it, what deep wellsprings of meaning it tapped, how it felt to those who experienced it, I couldn’t get there. And I had to take a break for a while.
But now comes Balak, a portion in which G-d uncovers human eyes, and animals and humans once again, if only for a moment, have equal seats at the spiritual round table as in the Garden. That idea of uncovering human eyes while the eyes of a she-ass need no uncovering is key to understanding the significance of the famous talking donkey story in Balak.
Jacob Milgrom, in the JPS Torah Commentary to Numbers, points out that the story of Balaam’s ass is an interpolated folk tale (Num. 22:22-35). This explains why it presents inconsistencies and contradictions in relation to the story into which it is inserted, including a very different image of Balaam, a negative image which gains dominance in both Jewish and Christian traditions. The surrounding story, and older tradition, presents Balaam as a faithful servant of G-d, which led to some favorable rabbinic comparisons with both Moses and Abraham.
But what interests me is the way in which this story of the talking she-ass comments on the relationship between human beings, other animals and the environment, and G-d. Once again, as in the Garden, other animals are as capable of vision and understanding as human beings, perhaps even more so. Yes, as Rabbi Sacks points out, there is humor, even sarcasm, in the story. Even Balaam’s she-ass can see and understand what he, a so-called “seer” cannot. But I like to understand the story as something more.
Here is the story of Balaam and the she-ass (from Sefaria.org):
וַיָּ֤קָם בִּלְעָם֙ בַּבֹּ֔קֶר וַֽיַּחֲבֹ֖שׁ אֶת־אֲתֹנ֑וֹ וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ עִם־שָׂרֵ֥י מוֹאָֽב׃
When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries.
וַתֵּ֣רֶא הָאָתוֹן֩ אֶת־מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָ֜ה נִצָּ֣ב בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וְחַרְבּ֤וֹ שְׁלוּפָה֙ בְּיָד֔וֹ וַתֵּ֤ט הָֽאָתוֹן֙ מִן־הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וַתֵּ֖לֶךְ בַּשָּׂדֶ֑ה וַיַּ֤ךְ בִּלְעָם֙ אֶת־הָ֣אָת֔וֹן לְהַטֹּתָ֖הּ הַדָּֽרֶךְ׃
when the ass caught sight of the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road.
וַֽיַּעֲמֹד֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה בְּמִשְׁע֖וֹל הַכְּרָמִ֑ים גָּדֵ֥ר מִזֶּ֖ה וְגָדֵ֥ר מִזֶּֽה׃
The angel of the LORD then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side.
וַתֵּ֨רֶא הָאָת֜וֹן אֶת־מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֗ה וַתִּלָּחֵץ֙ אֶל־הַקִּ֔יר וַתִּלְחַ֛ץ אֶת־רֶ֥גֶל בִּלְעָ֖ם אֶל־הַקִּ֑יר וַיֹּ֖סֶף לְהַכֹּתָֽהּ׃
The ass, seeing the angel of the LORD, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again.
וַיּ֥וֹסֶף מַלְאַךְ־יְהוָ֖ה עֲב֑וֹר וַֽיַּעֲמֹד֙ בְּמָק֣וֹם צָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֛ר אֵֽין־דֶּ֥רֶךְ לִנְט֖וֹת יָמִ֥ין וּשְׂמֹֽאול׃
Once more the angel of the LORD moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left.
וַתֵּ֤רֶא הָֽאָתוֹן֙ אֶת־מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה וַתִּרְבַּ֖ץ תַּ֣חַת בִּלְעָ֑ם וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֣ף בִּלְעָ֔ם וַיַּ֥ךְ אֶת־הָאָת֖וֹן בַּמַּקֵּֽל׃
When the ass now saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.
Then the LORD opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר בִּלְעָם֙ לָֽאָת֔וֹן כִּ֥י הִתְעַלַּ֖לְתְּ בִּ֑י ל֤וּ יֶשׁ־חֶ֙רֶב֙ בְּיָדִ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֖ה הֲרַגְתִּֽיךְ׃
Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”
וַתֹּ֨אמֶר הָאָת֜וֹן אֶל־בִּלְעָ֗ם הֲלוֹא֩ אָנֹכִ֨י אֲתֹֽנְךָ֜ אֲשֶׁר־רָכַ֣בְתָּ עָלַ֗י מֵעֽוֹדְךָ֙ עַד־הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה הַֽהַסְכֵּ֣ן הִסְכַּ֔נְתִּי לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת לְךָ֖ כֹּ֑ה וַיֹּ֖אמֶר לֹֽא׃
The ass said to Balaam, “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?” And he answered, “No.”
וַיְגַ֣ל יְהוָה֮ אֶת־עֵינֵ֣י בִלְעָם֒ וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ נִצָּ֣ב בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְחַרְבּ֥וֹ שְׁלֻפָ֖ה בְּיָד֑וֹ וַיִּקֹּ֥ד וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ לְאַפָּֽיו׃
Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground.
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֵלָיו֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֔ה עַל־מָ֗ה הִכִּ֙יתָ֙ אֶת־אֲתֹ֣נְךָ֔ זֶ֖ה שָׁל֣וֹשׁ רְגָלִ֑ים הִנֵּ֤ה אָנֹכִי֙ יָצָ֣אתִי לְשָׂטָ֔ן כִּֽי־יָרַ֥ט הַדֶּ֖רֶךְ לְנֶגְדִּֽי׃
The angel of the LORD said to him, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me.
וַתִּרְאַ֙נִי֙ הָֽאָת֔וֹן וַתֵּ֣ט לְפָנַ֔י זֶ֖ה שָׁלֹ֣שׁ רְגָלִ֑ים אוּלַי֙ נָטְתָ֣ה מִפָּנַ֔י כִּ֥י עַתָּ֛ה גַּם־אֹתְכָ֥ה הָרַ֖גְתִּי וְאוֹתָ֥הּ הֶחֱיֵֽיתִי׃
And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.”
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר בִּלְעָ֜ם אֶל־מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙ חָטָ֔אתִי כִּ֚י לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֥י אַתָּ֛ה נִצָּ֥ב לִקְרָאתִ֖י בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְעַתָּ֛ה אִם־רַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֖יךָ אָשׁ֥וּבָה לִּֽי׃
Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.”
וַיֹּאמֶר֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ יְהוָ֜ה אֶל־בִּלְעָ֗ם לֵ֚ךְ עִם־הָ֣אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְאֶ֗פֶס אֶת־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־אֲדַבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ אֹת֣וֹ תְדַבֵּ֑ר וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ בִּלְעָ֖ם עִם־שָׂרֵ֥י בָלָֽק׃
But the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you.” So Balaam went on with Balak’s dignitaries.
So three times, the she-ass sees the angel of the Lord, and Balaam does not. Then G-d opens the mouth of the she-ass, who questions why Balaam beats her — has she ever done anything like this before? And G-d “uncovers the eyes” of Balaam, who then realizes his error.
Sarcastic humor, yes indeed. But in addition, Balaam has no reaction to an ass that not only speaks but is a “seer” just as he is and has not only consciousness but a sense of fairness. There is an implicit assumption in the story that animals have an equal place at the spiritual round table, and it is only an act of G-d that places them at the mercy of human beings. That should generate humility in Balaam, but the story tells us something different.
This leads me to another feature to the story that intrigues me, a characteristic of the she-ass that distinguishes her from her human master, Balaam: her humility. The nameless she-ass challenges Balaam’s sense of justice with these words: “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?” She has borne her burden and her place in creation faithfully while an arrogant, unseeing, unaware Balaam cites his own exalted sense of self-worth as a reason to cruelly beat her: “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”
This makes the wordplay in the story even more significant. When Balaam finally sees the angel, it is described in this phrase:
וַיְגַ֣ל יְהוָה֮ אֶת־עֵינֵ֣י בִלְעָם֒ וַיַּ֞רְא אֶת־מַלְאַ֤ךְ יְהוָה֙
Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD…
It’s a big deal for Balaam when he sees the angel of the Lord. It is a revelation. Conversely, it’s just in the course of things for the she-ass, no braggadocio required:
וַתֵּ֨רֶא הָאָת֜וֹן אֶת־מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְהוָ֗ה
…when the ass caught sight of the angel of the LORD…
The she-ass in the natural course of things catches sight of the obvious, a dangerous angel of the Lord in the path wielding a fiery sword, and does the obvious, refuses to go further, saving her own life and the life of her master. G-d doesn’t “uncover” her eyes; she doesn’t claim special status as a “seer;” and she receives no praise as a heroine. She just “sees” the angel of the Lord.
This fact enhances the irony of Balaam’s self-promoting words in his third blessing, the first that he composes himself since G-d placed words in his mouth in the other two:
וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר נְאֻ֤ם בִּלְעָם֙ בְּנ֣וֹ בְעֹ֔ר וּנְאֻ֥ם הַגֶּ֖בֶר שְׁתֻ֥ם הָעָֽיִן׃
Taking up his theme, he said: Word of Balaam son of Beor, Word of the man whose eye is true,
נְאֻ֕ם שֹׁמֵ֖עַ אִמְרֵי־אֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֨ר מַחֲזֵ֤ה שַׁדַּי֙ יֶֽחֱזֶ֔ה נֹפֵ֖ל וּגְל֥וּי עֵינָֽיִם׃
Word of him who hears God’s speech, Who beholds visions from the Almighty, Prostrate, but with eyes uncovered…
In the earlier part of the story with the she-ass, Balaam only sees the obvious, a dangerous angel of the Lord in the path, when G-d “uncovers” his eyes. In the meantime, He beat his faithful she-ass twice and would have killed her. How quickly his arrogance reasserts itself as he proclaims himself one who beholds visions, one with his eyes “uncovered.”
Finally, there is a reminder once again of a prominent theme in the Torah, that human beings are in a position of privilege over other creatures only by the “grace of G-d,” not through their merit. Only by the grace of G-d are human beings permitted to eat animals and use them as a substitute sacrifice in place of themselves, as the angel of the Lord says: “And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.”
I wonder if the world might be different if human beings cultivate humility instead of dominance? If we remind ourselves moment-to-moment that we share the spiritual round table with other beings who are our equal?