The donkey and the blind seer

By Rabbi Dr. Neal Rose

This week’s Torah reading finds us in the middle of the Book Numbers. The book begins with a very detailed description of the military and religious infrastructure to be used as our ancestors travel from the desert to the promised land. Yet the journey becomes filled with disruptions, animosity and chaos most of which is due to the behavior of the Israelites. There however are instances of external enemies who attempt thwart the journey.

This week’s reading tells the most extensive story of the outside enemy’s attempt to foil the journey. The event centers around the shaman/magician whose name is Balaam the hired gun of Balak a local warlord who realizes that the advancing Israelites  will not be defeated militarily. The warlord concludes that only magic can defeat Moses and his people. Hence the employment of the well-known shaman Balaam whose reputation precedes him

Shamans of this type are well known among peoples of the ancient near East.He like all those in his profession  dresses in the appropriate garb and carries  all the tools for  magic making. 

Dressed in his finery the magician reluctantly begins the journey to meet  Balak. Unexpectedly, the donkey veers from the straight and narrow because, unlike it’s clever master, it sees a being brandishing a sword. The animal deviates from the path a total of three times because of the impending danger.  Each time wounding its master. In retaliation, the so called “seer” whips the animal mercilessly. Suddenly the animal starts to rebuke its master saying:

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DONKEY (to Balaam): “what have I done to you that you would hit me three times?”

BALAAM: “You’ve made me look stupid! If I I’d had a sword,  I’d have killed you by now.”

DONKEY:” Aren’t  I the very same donkey you’ve always ridden on? Have I ever been disloyal or hurt you?”

BALAAM: “No.”

It takes an act of God to open the eyes of the Shaman.

At this point in the story we realize that the storyteller is inviting us to laugh or even mock the self-possessed Shaman.

The humorous treatment of people in power who would seek to destroy us as Jews is reminiscent of the manner  in which The book of Esther deals with the drunken king and his henchmen Haman. Chapter after chapter these two great men are done in by a woman and an old man. The importance of humor as a tool of survival is reflected in the Mardi Gras style that we celebrate the holiday of Purim.

 Visualize what’s happening: The mighty master of magic dressed in his finery with all its bells and whistles is put to shame as bounces up and down and becomes  helpless and angry. The depiction calls to mind the techniques of physical comedy so well exemplified in the work of Charlie Chaplin. 

We have found many ways to survive. Laughter and humor are perhaps one of the most profound survival  techniques and explains our long history of survival. When at times we have been physically unable to overcome forces  greater than ourselves humor and laughter have allowed us to outlive those who sought to destroy us. Mel Brooks’s humorous  depictions of the of Hitler and  Nazis in the movie “To Be on Not To Be” is an expression of the humor and sarcasm that Mel Brooks  inherited from the immigrant yiddish speaking environment that he grew up in.

As the Balaam and donkey story is read I, for one, will bless the Holy One  who has endowed us with laughter and humor.

Rabbi Dr. Neal Rose is a Chaplain with Jewish Family & Children’s Service, and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.