Throughout the Torah there are only two animals that speak: the serpent that addressed Eve, and the donkey of this week’s reading. We empathize instantly with this proverbially dumb brute whose calm and patient attempt to help Balaam see the error of his hot-headed ways is a classic of Torah humor. Yet, if one does not pay close attention, we move too quickly into the action of the miracle without stopping to savor Torah’s crucial lesson. A close reading of the beginning of this verse “The Lord opened the mouth of the donkey” (Num.22:28) reveals the cornerstone of Israelite prophecy.
The book of Proverbs takes the cue from God’s thrusting upon Moses the prophetic mission (“Who gives a person a mouth? Who makes him dumb?” Exodus 4:11) and turns it into an active duty: “Open your mouth and speak up for the dumb” (31:8). Job, a consummate prophet after the model of Moses, was “eyes to the blind and feet to the lame” (Job 29:15) and thereby passes the test. Balaam has his chance to open his mouth for her, but flunks. His peevishness and grazed shins blind him to everything but his own grievances. Then, in addition to the miracle – or as its manifestation – a Job comes along and takes up the cudgels on the ass’s behalf. This is the great lesson that we take away from this story: to try not to be so self-absorbed and callous as to hit those who may seem to be acting up, but may in fact be in a worse predicament.
Balaam’s quick and fierce anger is matched by his overly expanded ego and spiritual blindness. So deaf and full of himself, his thoughts and actions remind us that it is easy to be self-centered and lose sensitivity to what is going on around us. Job, on the other hand, knew what people needed and could articulate what they were unable to do. This is a crucial qualification for Israelite prophets.
Indeed, the Sages held certain attributes prerequisite for a person to receive prophecy. “Rabbi Johanan said: The Holy One, blessed be He, causes His Divine Presence to rest only upon him who is strong, wealthy, wise and humble” (Nedarim 38a; cf. Shabbath 92a and Yad, Yesode ha-Torah 7:1). Rashi adds more to our list. His comment to Psalms 2:10 (“the prophets of Israel are people of compassion”) echoes the Midrash: “The prophets of Israel caution Israel against transgression… all the prophets retained a compassionate attitude towards both Israel and the idolaters.” (Numbers Rabbah 20:1) That’s what it means to be an Israelite prophet.
Torah prophets were not just foretelling the future – that was the popular idea of a navi, because that is what people wanted. Those like Balaq, king of the Moabites, prize the Balaams of the world for their seeming ability to pull strings in the Heavenly realm, and/or their street credentials of divination. But to Torah, premonition, etc., is not primary. Moses was the greatest prophet and spent very little time foretelling the future. Even Deut 31:27, which a hasty reader might construe as supernatural foreknowledge, turns out to be a prediction based on an a fortiori argument: “For I know how defiant and stubborn you are; even during my lifetime you have defied the Lord; how much more, then, will you do so when I am dead?”
Had Balaam been concerned with the plight of others, the mishaps with his donkey en route to Balaq would have signaled him to give voice to the precarious situation of the Israelites, great in number yet weak in spirit. As the Psalmist highlights (119:143), the “tight place” of Balaam’s journey when there was no room to turn right or left might have mirrored the Israelites, hemmed in on all sides. Instead, as Scripture tells us (Numbers 31:16), Balaam was hell-bent on using his gifts to damn them. After failing to curse Israel, he gave Balaq advice to entice Israel to worship Ba’al Pe’or through the use of the Midianite women (Numbers 25:1-9).
How different the Israelite prophet who exhorted his people to return to God and hold fast to the covenant! He busied him/herself with advocating righteousness and pursuing justice, and making certain that those voices which were weak would be heard loud and clear – and oft repeated. The rabbis antennae were finely tuned to this message and even taught the idea of “vicarious speech,” i.e., one person speaks and it counts as if another had “moved his/her lips” as the Talmud (Yebamoth 96b-97a) tells us that King David prayed that when others repeated his teaching, it would be as if his lips were moving as if he was saying it. David would thereby continue to teach Torah to countless generations.
Moses never told people where to find donkeys. He is not revered for oracular consultations, rather the fact that he was all about righteousness, a different order. Without belittling the miracle of this week’s reading, our verse teaches that a navi has heightened awareness, and is attuned to the silence of those who can’t raise clamor themselves. This is most important. The prophet hears the inaudible – the bray of the donkey, the voices of the dumb or silent that would be overlooked – but moreover, he/she searches for it. And when we contrast these two mighty prophets – Balaam and Moses – that is the moment we uncover how important their traits were in determining their respective records. What was most important to them defined their missions and how they used their God-given gifts.
What is the point of Moses and the other prophets unless their personality counts in the transmission of revelation? God has infinite ways of producing Torah and of reaching His creatures. But the fact is, God chose human agents, and that choice we see as integral to the revelation. Moses’ soul lives in his words, because a prophet is more than a secretary or a ventriloquist’s dummy.