In parshat Balak, the weekly Torah reading (Numbers 22:2-25:9), we read about the non-Jewish prophet Balaam, hired by Balak, the King of Moav to curse the Israelites. It’s a strange story, from Balaam’s awareness that his power to curse lies with Adonai, the God of Israel, to his repeated consultations with God to see if maybe now would be a good time to curse the Israelites, to God’s seeming ambivalence about Balaam’s involvement in the scheme, to Balaam’s series of increasingly beautiful blessings, to the story of the Israelites’ bad behavior which immediately follows the blessings bringing a plague on the camp.
But the part that catches our attention, if not Balaam’s, is the talking donkey. Why a talking donkey? How?!? Many of the commentators try to explain the talking donkey away. She didn’t really talk. She brayed and Balaam interpreted. Or the whole donkey incident was a dream sequence. Personally, I’m partial to the midrashic interpretation that the donkey was one of the special things God made at sunset the first Friday night of creation, held in waiting until the moment they were needed for miracle duty. Because they are created before the time is up, they don’t require God to break and overturn the natural order. God didn’t suddenly give that donkey the ability to talk. Just like God certainly didn’t scoop Velvel’s ice cream or suddenly endow him with the dexterity and coordination to scoop it himself. The midrash claims that the talking donkey is just one of those normal natural miracles that you don’t happen to notice every day. There’s a logical explanation, but because it’s not immediately apparent, it catches our attention.
But perhaps even more baffeling than the talking donkey is Balaam’s reaction – namely, that it doesn’t catch his attention. Instead of saying, “OMG a talking donkey!”, he continues to argue with it. The prophet, whose job it is to understand or purportedly even to shape God’s will, not only can’t see the angel with the big scary sword, not only is less aware than his donkey, not only is unable to deduce that when his trusty donkey veers off course something else must be wrong, but even the talking donkey doesn’t tip him off. Instead of snapping to attention, he threatens the donkey to get his way.
Why doesn’t he get the hint? He’s doing what I do every day as I fight Velvel out of the freezer. He’s working so hard to make the world conform to his desires, he fails to notice the miracles that make up the world as it actually is. Here, he’s missing a big one – several big ones actually – over several focused attempts to shape how his world works. He’s so busy trying to make the donkey go he doesn’t notice it talking. He’s so busy trying to go curse the Israelites he doesn’t notice the angel standing in his way. He’s so busy trying to do his job as a prophet, he loses sight of the will of God that should be expressed through that role. He misses miracle after miracle, angels, talking animals, the amazing power God has given him if he’ll use it appropriately, and the miracle of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and journey through the desert.
Balak misses that one too. God doesn’t instruct the Israelites to make war with Moav. It’s not clear from our text here in Nubers, but in Deuteronomy it’s explicit. The Israelites are not to make war with Moav. God intends Moav to keep their land. But Balak, seeing the results of God’s miracles for Israel, seeing their greatness, is overcome with fear, and instead of focusing on the miracles, focuses on how he had imagined the world to be. He wants to be the powerful force in the region and doesn’t want to see another strong nation appear, and he sets out to make it so. Balaam’s blessing declares that those who bless Israel will be blessed, and those who curse Israel are cursed, but Moav is busy trying to maintain control, and can’t be bothered with witnessing the miracle or being blessed through it. It doesn’t work out well for them. In the next parsha God sends the Israelites to make trouble for Moav.
Balak’s attempt to control the world doesn’t work out for him and neither does Balaam’s. He fails at cursing the Israelites, thank God, which incites Balaam’s anger, so rather than being rewarded, he’s forced to run away.
But this parsha doesn’t leave anyone unscathed. The Israelites, just like everyone else in the parsha, miss the miracle. Having escaped an attempt to curse them and ultimately destroy them – escaped it through the direct intervention of God – what do the Israelites do? They allow Moabite and Midianite women to draw them into participating in their sacrifices and idol worship. Do they fail to notice that these are the peoples who just tried to curse them? Actually, the Torah doesn’t tell us whether the Israelites notice anything that goes up until this point in the parsha. The action all goes on literally over their heads from mountaintops overlooking them. Shouldn’t they have smelled the twenty one sacrificed animals roasting? In any case, this is yet another instance of the generation that is destined to die in the desert working out their slave mentality, their lack of faith. This isn’t the first miracle they’ve quickly forgotten. And, again, it doesn’t work out well for them.
So what is it that keeps us from noticing the miracles around us? Why do we insist on arguing with the talking donkey? For Balak, the king of Moav, he’s blinded to the miracles by fear. The torah tells us, “vayar Balak ben Tsipor et kol asher asah Yisrael La’emori vayagor Moav mipnei ha’am me’od ki rav hu. Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites and Moav was very afraid of the people because it was great.”
The word vayagor is pretty unambiguous – it’s fear. And fear is not an unreasonable response to seeing a powerful group of people coming your way. But power doesn’t necessarily have to mean threat or danger. There’s another word in Hebrew that holds both possibilities. That word is yirah. It’s a word we hear a lot on the high holidays. It translates as fear, but also as awe. Situations that are awesome can be scary. Maybe that possibility is inherent in anything powerful.
Back to Velvel opening the freezer. I’ve seen him do it, and it can be a little bit scary. I’ve seen him grip the handle with both hands, plant his feet just where the door hits the floor, and lean back with all his might. A kid with a different balance of awe and fear wouldn’t do it. And a some of the time I don’t want to let him do it either. But in those moments, where there’s not immediate serious danger, when I can push myself a little away from the fear end of the spectrum, I find myself with an opportunity to experience the wonder and the awe that he feels.
It’s a balancing act. We can’t spend all day everyday just watching to be sure we catch the miracles. And we can’t ignore potentially dangerous situations because they’re also awesome. But I think we can be aware of which we we lean ourselves, and which way the other forces in our lives push us. For me, Velvel often represents the impulse towards fearless awe, while Zalmen mingles the two together with cautious respect. I remember watching Zalmen at the shore of a lake around Velvel’s age. He watched, seemingly forever, fascinated, but when we suggested going in… no thanks, you go in. Velvel, on the other hand would run straight for the waves of the ocean, reveling in the stunning and enticing beauty. Often I feel drawn to push back at their natural tendancies, to mediate their reactions, but sometimes, when I can, its awesome to try to just experience it with them.
In our culture, we have a lot of influences towards the fear end of the spectrum. I see it in pregnancy, birth, and parenting, because that’s what I’ve been doing the last five years or so, but I’m sure it’s everywhere. There’s so much to worry about, tests to make sure things are okay, foods to avoid, foods to eat enough of, parenting techniques and choices with opposite expert opinions warning scary results no matter what you do. There are chemicals to avoid, germs to fend off, walls to keep them from jumping from, and the list goes on.
With so much to fear, its easy to forget the awe. We can miss the miracles, and I don’t believe that we can do so without consequence. It certainly doesn’t work out well in the parsha.
Sometimes people ask what the line, casually placed on much of the Jewish Birth Network Literature, “More Awe, Less Fear” means. This is what I’m talking about. Taking enough of a step back from the fear to make room for the awe and experience the miracles that happen whether we notice them or not.
On passover, at our family seder, we played a round of “I’m leaving Egypt and I’m leaving behind.” I decided to leave behind multitasking the kids. I can’t say that I’ve perfected that intention yet, but when I make room to just be with them while I’m with them, when I stop trying to make them do what I want, and take time to appreciate who they are, I get a chance to experience the miracles.
This is also a driving impulse behind the Jewish Birth Network’s Birth Circle program – just carving out time and space to acknowledge the miracles of pregnancy birth and parenting, in hopes that it might allow people to experience them miraculously.
I think that impulse is also part of the power of Shabbat. Blocking out time to let the world be, rather than constantly using our human impulse to make it what we want opens up room for the wonder.
Interestingly the word yirah doesn’t appear in our parsha. The word vayar, he saw, does, though. The two words may not be related as their roots share only two out of three letters, but some grammarians would argue that two is enough. It’s certainly enough for a little word play. People in this parsha see plenty. And they see with the same letters as yirah – hinting, I think at the opportunity to experience the situation with awe. But instead they act out of fear, insecurity, and the impulse to be in control. Our job is to see the opportunity, choose to integrate the awe, and experience the miracles and blessings that we find right in front of us every day.
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