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!