Talking equines. My, my, my. What do we do when the asses talk back? Declare a new world order? Pull our hair out in dismay, or discount the occurrence as fantasy or fable?
Perhaps we should relate another pasuk to the situation first, which might help reveal the futility of humans expecting animals to behave like men:
ויאמר מואב אל-זקני מדין עתה ילחכו הקהל את-כל-סביבתינו כלחך השור את ירק השדה ובלק בן-צפור מלך למואב בעת ההוא:
Moab said to the elders of Midian, “Now the congregation will lick up our entire surroundings, as an ox licks up the greenery of the field.” Balak son of Zippor was king of Moab at that time. (Num.22:4)
An ox licking up the greenery of the field – an apt analogy for the Late Bronze era. Resources are scarce in a water-poor region of the world, and so the influx of a numerous population into the ecosystem is naturally going to throw things off. Balak’s simile is apropos for an agrarian society: a multitude, with beasts in tow, are going to put a strain on resources, food supplies, and grazing lands.
Balak is being short-sighted. He can’t imagine that improved stock-keeping and agricultural techniques might overcome overgrazing. Instead, Balak runs to Midian, hoping to create a new foreign policy. After all, Midian and Moab were enemies at the time, not allies. But nothing can create a faster bond between nations than a common enemy. Just as true today as it was then, Balak had to guarantee that Am Israel would be perceived by Midian as a threat. Given that Midian knew Moshe well, with Yitro as his father-in-law, Balak needs more than just his word. So he sends Balaam, Moab’s prophet. After all, even the goyim have prophets. Why should Israel be alone in that? It doesn’t matter that Balaam was condemned by the Midrashic Sages as a corrupt and evil man (Avot 5:22) – in this parasha we see that he also had the ability to render prophecy, as one on whom the spirit of G-d rested. (Num.24:22)
There is a fallacy that causes an impoverished community to resent a newcomer, thinking that there is a finite amount of goods to go around: If one group has prospered, it’s because another has become poorer by the same degree. The concept that deficit spending can fuel economic growth will have to wait a few thousand years for John Manyard Keynes. Rather than forming a strategic alliance with Israel, Balak sends his prophet to warn the region of impending financial doom.
So here we see the first concerted effort of a world-alliance designed to foment negative public opinion: a precursor to the UN or the European Union, rising up to castigate Israel, determined to negate Israel’s legal standing and right to inhabit Eretz HaKodesh. Sound familiar?
Before Balaam can discharge his duty to deliver Balak’s message to Midian, a talking ass intervenes.
Anyone who has ever ridden a horse or a donkey, knows that sometimes they simply have a mind of their own. Equines perceive things that aren’t there – they’re flight animals, and their instinct is first to flee, then to think. Coupled with that, donkeys and asses are known to be stubborn. Sometimes, they just do what they want, when they want. Angels, aside, Balaam’s ass is a perfect depiction of standard equine behavior. This is an anthropomorphic dialogue: “Whaddya mean by that? Hitting me with a stick? What’d I ever do to you?!? I go where you want me to go, I carry what you put on my back. You think I’m gonna put up with you hitting me? ”
Anybody who has ever ridden a normally complacent animal, is going to immediately do a bit of soul-searching. “What did I do that caused my animal to baulk? What am I doing wrong?” Unlike using a car for transportation, if you use animals, and they react badly, the driver needs to assess his own actions.
Whether the donkey literally spoke, or Balaam simply understood the donkey’s message, is immaterial. If you know you’re going to do something wrong, then don’t go. If you have misgivings, your trusty steed will know, and it will react. You can’t ride well if you are afraid. A horse or donkey will certainly pick up on that. So what we have here is a prophet, knowingly heading out to do evil, with a guilty conscience. But his body language doesn’t lie. And his animal reacts.
Thus when Balaam returns, his prophecy belies his misgivings:
הן-עם לבדד ישכן ובגוים לא יתחשב:
Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude and not be reckoned among the nations. (Num 23:9)
Public opinion will not sway Am Israel from fulfilling its mission, settling its land, and dealing with its enemies.
Isn’t it time for the UN and the European Union to face reality, like Balaam?