OzTorah – Torah reading: Balak


Balaam and the Angel of Jehovah. Credit: www.bookdrum.com

Some animals just have no luck. Chief amongst them is the donkey. Whilst the Code of Jewish Law says we should start the day like lions, bringing strength and power to the day’s commandments, everyone says, “Don’t be a donkey!” At times we talk about being an ass, but the message is the same.

Certain things about donkeys give the impression of stupidity, though actually the story of Bil’am’s donkey in this week’s sidra (Num. 22) gives quite a different picture. Bilam was riding on his donkey and the animal saw an angel of the Lord standing there with a drawn sword, so she diverted from the path. Bil’am didn’t see the angel so he thought the donkey was being stupid, and he hit it. A second time the same thing happened; a second time the donkey had more perception than Bil’am. Bil’am was supposed to be a prophet, but at this moment his prophetic sense deserted him and an animal saw more than he did. Next in the story is Bil’am shouting at the donkey and the donkey answering back.

Such a clever animal: no wonder the sages say (Avot 5:9) that this was a special donkey created by God at the beginning of history.

What does the episode teach us? That no-one should big-note themselves as a prophet – and no one should brush aside an animal’s capacity to size up a situation. “Don’t be a donkey,” they say, but on the other hand one shouldn’t be unkind to the donkeys.


A snatch of poetry in this week’s reading tell us, “Darach kochav miYa’akov” – “A star steps out of Jacob: a scepter arises from Israel” (Num. 24:17).

Many people follow a view stated in the Yerushalmi in applying this verse to the Mashi’ach. An alternative view is that the verse refers to every Jew. In this case the implication is clear: any ordinary member of the Jewish people (“Ya’akov”) can be the star who will turn out to be the promised Messiah or at least make the world ready for the Messiah’s arrival and the world’s redemption.

Credit: www.pinterest.com

Maybe it’s human nature to belittle other people and write them off as unimportant and of no consequence. I once had a synagogue president who judged his members by their tie and their shoes. He ruled out a candidate for the post of cantor because he was wearing a red tie; he was against giving someone an Aliyah to the Torah because he was wearing brown shoes.

You can always find a disqualification in the other person – even, or especially, in yourself. But, to borrow a rabbinic phrase, how do you know that your blood is redder than his? If God can put up with a person, why can’t you?

The Torah can see some good and potential in the most ordinary person, regardless of their tie or shoes. How can you be certain that the Mashi’ach will not be wearing a red tie or brown shoes? Maybe the Messiah won’t be wearing a tie at all, or shoes either (surely you remember that when Moses stood at the Burning Bush, God told him to take his shoes off because that spot of earth was holy ground).


Bilam is called “ha’gever sh’tum ha’ayin”, which some versions render, “the man whose eye is opened” (Num. 24:3,15). Another translation is “whose eye is true”. Since Bilam is a prophet, the text must be describing his capacity for prophetic insight – his ability to perceive with his mind’s eye.

However, the same Hebrew root can be understood as meaning closed, not opened. Some of the sages therefore thought that the Torah was telling us that Bilam was blind in one eye (since it does not say “sh’tum b’einav”, i.e. “sh’tum in both eyes”, it seems that he had a problem only with one eye). Others said his prophetic capacity was defective until the moment when he

“saw that it was right in the eyes of the Lord to bless Israel” (Num. 23:1)

and when he

“lifted up his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, the spirit of God came upon him” (Num. 23:2).

If we take this last interpretation, we learn that like all human beings Bilam does not immediately see the truth of a situation. He needs God to show him the real picture.


Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com

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