Another Thought About Balaam

Shabbat Balak has passed, but the beauty of studying the same portions of the Torah each year is that I always discover new insights. Today while leading Torah study at my synagogue (Congregation Beth Israel, West Hartford, Connecticut, where I am Rabbi Emeritus), I learned the following:

Balaam’s animal that speaks to him is a female. How consistent this is with the theme that it is often the female in the Bible who guides, instructs (or shapes the events surrounding) the clueless male. Beginning with Eve women like Rebecca, Tamar, the six women of the Exodus (discussed in an earlier web site essay), Samson’s un-named mother, Hannah, Ruth, Vashti and Esther are much more savvy than their male counterparts.

Bur there is more. Balaam was a world class sorcerer. The Sages claim that Balaam communicated directly with the Almighty (B. Zevahim 116A) and that he was the gentile equivalent for brilliance of Moses’ himself. (Bamidbar Rabbah 14:20) And yet in the story, Balaam is totally oblivious to the presence of God’s messenger while his animal sees the angel clearly. Wow!

When we think of dumb animals, asses are the metaphor! They don’t come dumber than that. And yet the ass gets it and Balaam, the smartest man alive, is clueless!

What does that teach us? There is something we can learn from everyone! Never look down on anyone!

I first learned this lesson–very painfully–in the sixth grade. Back then I was pretty OK in school. Reading, English and history were strong subjects. I was even OK at math, and I say proudly, I was the best speller in the class. And if I am honest, I looked down on those students who had trouble grasping these subjects.

Then I had shop.

I was the worst. It took me forever to finish my first project and before I painted my “magnificent” dog door stop, I went to the teacher Mr. L. A. Molinari for instructions on the final steps. He told me what to do, but I wanted to be sure, so I asked him to please go over it again. Mr. Molinari snapped at me in anger, saying, “You weren’t listening! You’re through for the day!” And I had to sit–fighting back tears–doing nothing for the rest of the period at my work bench while the rest of the guys continued their work.

I get it now. In shop I was the dummy. Mr. Molinari pegged me as a slacker even though all I wanted was to be sure to do the right thing. In the meantime all of those guys (only boys took shop back then) who were not as good in English and spelling as I was were way more proficient than I was at shop.

What a vital lesson that has been for me in my career as a rabbi! We all learn in different ways. We all have strengths and weaknesses. In the story of Balaam the ass, dumbest of animals was able to help the smartest person in the world see the light.

What’s in It for Me? What does this story teach you and me? Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma said it best: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone!” (Pirke Avot 4:1)

To that I would humbly add: And the one who does not look down on anyone!

6 thoughts on “Another Thought About Balaam

  1. I remember not being the brighest one. I was born about 5 weeks premature. After i was born, my mother didn’t get to hold me or even see me. I was, as she says, “whisked away” to the neonatal ICU. The only residual effects from my premature birth was that I was late in all of my physical, cognitive and developmental milestones. What I remember is those first few years of elementary school where I plain and simply didn’t get it. When I finally caught up to my peers, it was quite magical and amazing to me. I felt like a light bulb went off one day, and I stopped struggling. As an adult, looking back, i realize those early years, they were giving me special education services, and looking for learning disabilities. All the extra services ended when my brain caught up to my peers. I learned a lot being on the bottom of the class for a couple of years. I know what it is like to feel stupid, because that was how i felt. I think that helped me as I grew up to be sensitive to those whose struggled academically. It has helped me to value everyone’s strengths and weaknesses in life. It helps me be sensitive when people struggle to understand that which is easy to me.


  2. Rabbi Fuchs, Shalom to you from Jerusalem, a calm eye of the storm somehow. Just coincedentally came upon your website, although I don’t believe in coincidence. Browsing your website…lovely, much to enjoy and learn from (although I do personally believe that the Bible contains literal and historical, and points to scientific, truth.) Deeply appreciated your post on Israel. As I see it, however, our whole foundational basis for being here is based on the very literal and historic truth of the Tanakh and our Covenant with the God of Israel – whose very existence, actually, if you deny the truth of Torah, is in question…ergo, the right of Israel to exist in the Land He promised to our forefathers.
    An additional small query – how come you use the qof as your icon?
    Be’hatzlacha with your first book!!


    1. Keren, I hope I replied to your beautiful comment. Although we do differ on the historical and scientific veracity of the stories in theTorah, I definitely share your view that it is our destiny as Jews to be. N Israel. An earlier blog post,” Why the letter Kof?” Will answer your question as to why I chose it. Thank you so much (again, if I already respond) for your very kind comment!


  3. Dear Keren, although our views of the Bible’s revelation and historicity, I think we are kindred spirits, and I am honored by your response. I use the Kof because one of my favorite childhood books, that I still treasure is The Aleph-Bet Story Book by Deborah Pessin. It contains stories about each of the 22 Hebrew letters. My favorite story in the book is Kof and the Woodcutter’s prayer. I have told that story many times. That is why I use the kof. Also I hope what I write may be infused with (at least a small measure) of Kedusha!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s