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A Talking Donkey?!

07/13/2022 04:48:31 PM


Sarah Avner, Cantorial Soloist

Inarguably, the most famous talking donkey of our modern time is the creation of DreamWorks Shrek named, simply, Donkey. Since he first made his appearance on the big screen in April 2001, the word donkey has become synonymous with Eddie Murphy’s voice: “You might have seen a housefly, maybe even a superfly but I bet you ain't never seen a donkey fly." or “…and in the mornin' I'm makin' waffles." or “You know what everybody loves? A parfait…”

But, before Donkey, there was another famous talking donkey who makes her appearance in this week’s Torah portion, Balak.

Balaam, a soothsayer of great repute, is hired by Balak, the king of Moab, to curse the Israelites so he can defeat them. Balaam asks God if it is okay for him to go with the Moabites to deliver the curse. God tells him no at first but then, after being asked a second time, says yes insisting that “whatever I command you, that you shall do.” (Numbers 22:20)

Still furious with Balaam, God sends an angel with a drawn sword to prevent him from completing his journey. Balaam saddles his donkey but, three times, the donkey refuses to move forward upon seeing the angle. After Balaam beats her with a stick “Then Adonai opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” 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.” (22:28-30)

While Balaam is furious at the donkey for not following orders, the reader knows that she is trying to protect her less-insightful human cargo. Against her owner’s fury, the donkey answers calmly and with reason. The rabbis of Midrash Ba-Midbar Rabbah expand this observation. They ask, “Why is it that animals don’t use speech?” And their answer is, “had they been able to speak, it would have been impossible to put them to the service of people or to stand one’s ground against them. For here was this ass, the most stupid of all beasts, and there was the wisest of all the wise, yet as soon as she opened her mouth he could not stand his ground against her.” Therefore, conclude the rabbis, “the Holy Blessed One has consideration for the embarrassment of people, and knowing their needs, shut the mouth of beasts.”[1]

The midrash raises one simple question: What might animals say if they could speak?

We love our pets. We make space for them in our homes, cars and sometimes, even public spaces. As a dog owner I am happy to purchase tiny, adorable bags to carry in my pocket so I can be a good pet-owner to my neighbors. I have seen with my own eyes the increase in pets traveling with their owners on airplanes and noticed how airports have adapted with indoor areas for potty breaks for these pets.

Our own dog, Lacey, seems to talk with a lisp. We give her a voice in the most ridiculous of times. If she is barking at a package delivery one of us might say, “hey moms, they dropped something on the porch, come see, come see!” or a neighbor or friend knocks on the door “hey, hey, come let them in, theys friends, Is knows theys friends!”

While we give voice to our pets, I believe we are grateful that they don’t have one that we can understand. If you are a pet-owner, imagine how embarrassing it might be for us if our pets could tell our secrets. For now, I am happy to continue to give Lacey her silly, lispy voice.

Shabbat Shalom.


[1] The Bedside Torah: Wisdom, Visions, and Dreams © 2001

Fri, September 29 2023 14 Tishrei 5784