These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Thank God for Donkeys!

Posted on July 8, 2011 by Tamara Frankel

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Dear Friends,

This week I have been blown away by the ways in which God (the forces of the Universe/nature, if you prefer) works, sometimes mysteriously and other times very inconspicuously. I’m not one to believe in signs or superstitions but sometimes you can’t ignore experiences that awaken and speak to your emotions and thoughts. For example, these last couple of days I’ve been suffering from what my friends and I like to call the “Jerusalem Blues”. This was my last week in Israel before returning to Toronto, I feel there was a small dark cloud hovering over me – even while I had aimed to enjoy the people and the air of Jerusalem. I went to this Chasidic concert on a park close to my house and watched a group of random strangers danced together on stage. I prepared the parsha in a little coffee shop near my house. I walked around the shops in the airport and ‘stumbled’ upon a set of CDs entitled “Songs of the Bible” – perfect for my classroom! My cousins, who were once afraid to sit beside me, wouldn’t let me leave their house and say goodbye this week. Closing my bank account this week, the teller asked “Why are you leaving?! This is our home.” I thought: Even if I manage to incorporate pieces of Jerusalem into my life in Canada (and soon America), it will never be the same! You can’t bring an entire place with you to another place. Yearning not only for a place, but who you are in that place — these are the “Jerusalem Blues”.

I think that the most astounding message, that has comforted me especially this week, is that we do inevitably found our way to the paths of spirituality and personal betterment. In this week’s parsha, Parshat Balak, we are told of the story of a Moabite King, Balak, who wishes to curse the Israelites. As such, Balak hires a non-Jewish prophet Bilam to do his dirty work. Bilam is torn between the request (and enticing reward) of the Moabite king and God’s instruction not to curse the Jewish People. Beckoning the call of Balak and the Moabite ministers, Bilam sets out on his donkey. But Bilam encounters difficulty on his journey, as his path is blocked by an angel. Not only that, but only the donkey can see this angel, so Bilam lashes out at his stead. Finally, the donkey speaks to Bilam and beseeches him:

כח וַיִּפְתַּח ה’, אֶת-פִּי הָאָתוֹן; וַתֹּאמֶר לְבִלְעָם, מֶה-עָשִׂיתִי לְךָ, כִּי הִכִּיתַנִי, זֶה שָׁלֹשׁ רְגָלִים.

28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done to you, that you have hit me these three times?’

כט וַיֹּאמֶר בִּלְעָם לָאָתוֹן, כִּי הִתְעַלַּלְתְּ בִּי; לוּ יֶשׁ-חֶרֶב בְּיָדִי, כִּי עַתָּה הֲרַגְתִּיךְ.

29 And Balaam said unto the ass: ‘Because you have mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed you.’

ל וַתֹּאמֶר הָאָתוֹן אֶל-בִּלְעָם, הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי אֲתֹנְךָ אֲשֶׁר-רָכַבְתָּ עָלַי מֵעוֹדְךָ עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה–הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת לְךָ כֹּה; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא.

30 And the ass said to Balaam: ‘Am not I your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?’ And he said: ‘No.’

לא וַיְגַל  ה’, אֶת-עֵינֵי בִלְעָם, וַיַּרְא אֶת-מַלְאַךְ  ה’ נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלֻפָה בְּיָדוֹ; וַיִּקֹּד וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, לְאַפָּיו.

31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face.

(Numbers 22:28-31)

Sometimes, even with the most prophetic connection and education, we can be led astray and lose our sense of self and moral compass. For all kinds of reasons, mostly because we’re just human, we are sucked into the loud and flashy distractions that take us away from doing God’s work – whatever that might be. But although we may (unconsciously) end up on such a detour, we can take comfort knowing that there will be a friend who has traveled the distance with us, an interaction with a stranger, a song on the radio, an old paper on our desk that sets up back on track. This wake-up call may even be as explicit as a talking donkey!

Exhibit A:

Once we have witnessed such a sign (or what some might call, divine intervention), like Bilam are eyes are opened and we are able to bow our heads in recognition of where we have erred and where we truly went to go.

I bless us all that we encounter many “donkeys” in our lives, who enable us to (re)orient ourselves to paths of righteousness, growth and peace.

Shabbat Shalom,