When I was a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1968-69, the name of the student newspaper was “M’pe Aton,” or “From the mouth of a donkey.” It comes from the story of a talking donkey — a female donkey — found in Parshat Balak, the second of this week’s double Torah portion. The setting for the dialogue between Balaam, an evidently well-known prophet, and the donkey he is riding is that Balaam has agreed to take a commission from the Moabite king Balak so me may place a curse upon the people of Israel.
On his journey to the Israelite encampment, Balaam’s previously obedient donkey keeps turning from the road when she sees an angel of God. Balaam, who did not see the angel, responds by beating her with a stick. Finally, the donkey speaks to her master. It is from the mouth of the donkey, not the prophet, that the word of God is heard. She tells Balaam that even though his commission is to curse Israel, his mission from God will be to bless them. The most famous of the intended curses-turned-blessing are the words: “Ma tovu ohalecha yaakov; mishkenotecha Yisrael,” usually translated into English as: “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob; your dwelling places O Israel.”
King Balak’s assumption was that Balaam was a prophet for hire. Balaam’s position is less clear. He seems to be believe that he was endowed with a direct line to the Divine” and could profit from offering prophecy on demand. Yet, as the story unfolds, Balaam disclaims all responsibility for what he said and what he did not say.
To me, there is so much that is both relevant and salient in this biblical tale to the plagues of covid-19 and social unrest that we face in 2020.
Parshat Balak is not merely a cute story about a talking donkey. It is a parable, which teaches us that the determination of the value of every single human life should lie in God’s hand, not in human hands.
Yes, it is within the power of human beings, individually and collectively, to choose to be God’s voice and hands in the world. Every moment in our lives we have three options: We can do what is right. We can do what is wrong. We can do nothing.
In both the pandemic and in the continual manifestation of racial hatred and discrimination against African Americans, too many Americans have taken Balaam’s approach, disclaiming responsibility for what we say and don’t say, do and don’t do. In Leviticus 19 we are explicitly commanded to not stand idly by while others are afflicted. A 20th century re-telling of this principle can be found by re-watching the very last Seinfeld episode, in which Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer were convicted and jailed for standing idly by while a crime was committed. During this time of continued social distancing, I encourage everyone to re-watch this episode. It is a poignant lesson for 2020. There are no innocent bystanders to police brutality or to the tens of thousands of Americans who have died from coronavirus because our American health care system failed them and our government denied the reality of the threats of both covid-19 and racial inequality.
Today, 400 years after the first slave ships arrived on our shores and 55 years after I, then a teenager, rejoiced with family and friends when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, I refuse to believe that Dr. King’s dream cannot become a reality. I refuse to give up hope that on this Fourth of July weekend, we, the people of the United States of America, cannot do better and be better.
The Talmud tells a tale about an astrologer who seems at first to be like Balaam. We learn that two disciples of Rabbi Hanina, who were taught not to believe in sorcery, went into the forest to cut firewood. They met an astrologer who read their horoscopes and predicted that they would not return alive. This did not faze them and they continued on their way. They met an old man who asked them for some food. They only had a single loaf of bread but they divided it with him. When they returned from their chore, the people who overheard the astrologer’s prediction asked him: “Is the power of astrology false?”
He asked the two students to unwrap their bundles of wood. In each bundle was found half of a deadly snake.
“What did you do to merit an escape from sure death?” he asked them. “We know of nothing,” they replied, “except we gave half a loaf of bread to an old man.” “What can I do,” said the astrologer, “if the God of Israel is placated with a half a loaf of bread?”
Too many people who have refused to wear masks, or who refuse to fight against the social virus of racial and religious hatred, don’t get the message of Rabbi Hanina‘s students, Balaam’s donkey, or the Declaration of Independence, signed 244 years ago this Shabbat.
Rabbi Hanina’s students shared their bread because they knew that God required it of them. The Torah teaches that all human beings are created in the image of God. When America’s founders gathered to sign the Declaration of Independence, they confirmed the equality proclaimed in Torah when they proclaimed: “All men are created equal and endowed by our Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” With the 20-20 hindsight of history, we Americans know that African Americans were not considered equal by the founding fathers of the United States. It took the tragic Civil War to begin the process toward racial equality, and as the events of these last few months have proven we are not there yet. Women, who only attained the right to vote 100 years ago, were also not originally included in that Declaration of Independence as equals.
As all of us have wrestled with the physical dangers to our lives posed by the plague of covid-19 and the societal plague of racial and religious discrimination that continues to infect the body politic of our nation. This year, Balaam’s words remind me that the greatest challenge we face, individually and communally, is to find a way to see God’s Presence on our path through life, and work to turn the curses and misfortunes of life into opportunities to be a source of blessing to others.