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Heard the one about the donkey who laughed at the prophet?

Last week’s parashah, Hukkat, ended with Israel “encamped in Arvot Moav, facing Jericho in Trans-Jordan” (Numbers 22:1), and this week, Parashat Balak opens by telling us that “Balak, son of Zippor, saw everything that Israel had done to the Amorite” (Numbers 22:2).

In their fear – “Moab was very frightened of the nation, because it was so numerous” (v. 3) – Moab proposed an alliance with their neighbour, Midian

Moab and Midian are about to become allies?! Surely you jest! As several Midrashim (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:4, Tanhuma Balak 3, and Sifri, Numbers 157 and others) note, these two nations had been enemies for as long as anyone could remember: they had already been fighting each other centuries earlier, way back in Parashat Vayishlach (Genesis 36:35).

But when it came to fighting Israel, suddenly these two sworn enemies became friends!

Of course, today this joke has been repeated so many times, it has become somewhat jaded. Whether King Hussein of Jordan and President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt collaborating to attack Israel in 1967 after years of mutual hatred and repeated attempts to destroy each other, or Iraq and Kuwait, or the PLO and the Hamas, or Sunnis and Shiites, or neo-Nazis and communists, or white supremacists and Muslims – all these sworn enemies suddenly become friends and brothers when it comes to fighting Jews.

Come to that, lehavdil, even Yitzchak Rabin and Shimon Peres – two sworn, bitter, lifelong enemies – were able to make a temporary alliance in order to sign the Oslo Accords back in 1993 and condemn thousands of Jews to gruesome death.

If that doesn’t make you laugh, nothing will.

But when the historic enemies Moab and Midian first allied with each other to fight against Israel, this joke was still fresh.

King Balak of Moab, needing a spiritual mercenary to fight Israel, called on the prophet Balaam, son of Beor, in Pethor in Aram (a few hundred miles away, north of the River Euphrates).

Explaining to him why he wanted this prophet to curse the Jews, he used his own subtle humour: “I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6).

He was, of course, parodying G-d’s covenant with the Jewish nation – the nation whom he wanted to curse: “I will bless those who bless you, and he who curses you, I will curse” (Genesis 12:3).

If Balak knew of G-d’s blessing to Abraham and its wording, then this message to Balaam is surely rank cynicism. And if Balaam knew of G-d’s blessing to Abraham – which he may well have done, being a prophet who hailed from Aram, Abraham’s birthplace – then his acceptance of Balak’s parody of G-d’s promise to Abraham is even worse.

Balaam, not entirely convinced by this royal humour, told the Moabite emissaries to stay overnight, “and I will reply to you according to whatever Hashem will say to me” (Numbers 22:8).

A bit confident, this prophet: was he really all that sure that G-d would grant him an appointment that very night? And what a name-dropper! Anyone can casually mention that Sir So-and-so is a friend, or that King Someone-or-other will surely drop by before morning.

But Balaam was really going for the top.

Of course, name-dropping works both ways: G-d did, indeed, appear to Balaam that night, asking who these men were. Balaam casually mentioned to Him that they just happened to be those whom “Balak son of Zippor, king of Moab, sent to me” (v.10).

If these men had been impressed by Balaam’s chummy relationship with G-d, then G-d was not overly impressed by his chummy relationship with a mortal king: “You shall not go with them! You shall not curse the nation, because it is blessed!” (v. 12).

Nevertheless – a bit of wheedling, and G-d allowed this prophet to walk into his own downfall.

“Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his she-ass, and went with the officers of Moab. G-d’s anger flared up against him because he went, and an angel of Hashem stood firm in the path to obstruct him while he was riding on his she-ass… The ass saw the angel of Hashem standing firm in the path with his sword drawn in his hand, so the ass turned aside from the path…and Balaam struck the ass to turn her back to the path. The angel of Hashem was standing in the track through the vineyards with a fence on either side, and the ass, seeing the angel of Hashem, squashed up against the wall, and she squashed Balaam’s leg against the wall, and he struck her even more” (verses 21-25).

It is hard to keep a straight face here: even the ass can see the angel, while Balaam – the prophet who presumes to dictate to G-d whom to curse – cannot see him!

The Torah’s precise wording here is significant: “G-d’s anger flared up…and an angel of Hashem stood firm in the path”. G-d [Elokim] denotes the attribute of strict justice, while Hashem [שם הוי”ה] denotes the attribute of mercy. Hence the Midrashic comment that “this was an angel of mercy” (Numbers Rabbah 20:13), on which Rashi expands: “This was an angel of mercy, who wanted to prevent him from sinning and being destroyed” (commentary to Numbers 22:22).

If only Balaam had watched his donkey, he would not have got into so much trouble.

When Balaam hit his donkey for the third time, even this dumb beast had finally had enough:

“Hashem opened the ass’s mouth and she said to Balaam: ‘What have I done to you to make you strike me these three times?!’ And Balaam said to the ass: ‘It’s because you mocked me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you now!’” (Numbers 22:28-29).

At this, according to the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:14 and Tanhuma, Balak 9), even the ass laughed at Balaam: “Me, you are unable to kill without a sword in your hand – but you want to destroy an entire nation with your mouth?!”

There is also the somewhat pathetic humour here of a prophet almost crying because a donkey had made fun of him.

The donkey’s exact words here carried an ever-so-subtle warning to Balaam:

מֶֽה־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי לְךָ֔ כִּ֣י הִכִּיתָ֔נִי זֶ֖ה שָׁלֹ֥שׁ רְגָלִֽים?!

“What have I done to you to make you strike me these three times?!”

As the Midrash observes, “‘These three times’ – she was hinting to him: You are seeking to destroy a nation which celebrates the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (שָׁלוֹשׁ רְגָלִים) every year!” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:14 and Tanhuma, Balak 9).

That is to say: You have no chance of success! This is a Nation with an intimate relationship with G-d!

I note an additional, far subtler, warning in the donkeys words: the word for “you have struck me” should be הִכִּיתַנִי, with a patach under the tav; but the Torah records the donkey as saying הִכִּיתָנִי, with a kamatz under the tav.

The vowellisation הִכִּיתָנִי, with a kamatz, is the pausal form, which is the form when the word appears at the end of a phrase or sentence; that is to say, when the word is punctuated with either an אֶתְנַחְתָּ֑א or a זָקֵף-גָּד֕וֹל or a סוֹף-פָּסֽוּק (end-of-the-sentence).

But the punctuation here is a זָקֵף-קָטֹ֔ן, which is neither the end of a phrase not of a sentence: הִכִּיתָ֔נִי.

Why does Balaam’s donkey use the form הִכִּיתָנִי instead of the grammatically-appropriate הִכִּיתַנִי?

– Perhaps to warn him exquisitely subtly (maybe with subtle irony): הִכִּיתָנִי, you have struck me these three times, and this for you is the סוֹף-פָּסֽוּק, the end of the sentence.

When G-d Himself opens the donkey’s mouth and gives her the gift of human speech, it is well worth examining every possible nuance of everything she says.

And immediately afterwards, Hashem’s angel, too, laughed at Balaam: “Why did you strike your she-ass these three times? Behold – I went out to obstruct, because you hastened along the path against me. The ass saw me and turned away from me these three times; if she had not turned away from me, then I would now have killed you, and kept her alive!” (Numbers 22:32-33). In other words – your ass can see more than you can, and she, whom you thought to kill, saved your life.

In spite of all these warnings, Balaam went ahead and tried to curse Israel. The joke was on him, when all four attempts at cursing us turned into blessings and prophecies of blessings.

Our Sages play a spectacular joke on Balaam in his third blessing:

He opens with the words, מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל – “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-paces, O Israel” (v.5), and we have inscribed this blessing in the entrances to synagogues throughout the world for thousands of years. We can almost hear Balaam grinding his teeth in impotent fury as we use his curse-turned-to-blessing to introduce our prayers.

Our Sages gave this blessing a special prominence in the Torah scroll.

In standard sifrei Torah there are 245 columns. Almost all begin with the letter vav, but six columns begin with specified letters:

The first column begins with the ב of בְּרֵאשִׁית (“in the beginning”);

The 59th column begins with the י of יְהוּדָה (“Judah, your brothers will praise you”, Genesis 49:8);

The 78th column, that containing the Song at the Sea, begins with the ה of הַבָּאִים (Pharaoh’s army “who were coming”, Exodus 14:28);

The 132nd column begins with the ש of שְׁנֵי (“both the he-goats”, Leviticus 16:8);

The 184th column begins with the מַ of מַה טֹּבוּ of Balaam’s blessing;

And the 242nd column, that containing Moses’ song of Ha’azinu, begins with the ו of וְאָעִידָה (“and I will call as witnesses heaven and earth to testify”, Deuteronomy 31:28).

These six letters spell out the phrase בְּיָהּ שְׁמוֹ (“with YAH, His Name”) – a reference to the verse, “Sing to G-d, sing songs of praise to His Name, laud Him Who rides the heavens with YAH, His Name” (Psalms 68:5). Indeed, all six of these columns in the Torah contain poetic testimony to G-d’s mastery over heaven and earth.

Balaam surely turns in his grave at his curse-turned-blessing adorning our synagogues and being given such prominence in the Torah scrolls!

What was so good about Jacob’s tents and Israel’s dwelling-places?

– “He saw that none of the openings were facing each other” (Rashi, following Bava Batra 60a).

The Midrash explains that this was the epitome of modesty and chastity: “Even though they worshipped idols in Egypt, they were never guilty of sexual immodesty… When they went down to Egypt, they were modest, with each [tribe] in its tent, as it says, ‘each man came with his household’ (Exodus 1:1) – Reuben would not look at Simeon’s wife, nor would Simeon look at Reuben’s wife; rather, each one was in his tent, modestly. And even when they were 600,000 [men] in the desert they remained just as modest, with none of them having an opening facing his neighbour’s opening. When Balaam saw this, and perceived Israel dwelling according to their tribes, he praised them by saying, ‘How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling-paces, O Israel’” (Yalkut Shimoni, Balak 771).

This makes the conclusion of the parashah hideously ironic: “Israel dwelt in Shittim, and the nation began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1).

Balaam knew only too well where Israel’s strength truly lies – not in numbers, not in superior weaponry, not in powerful allies, but in holiness.

“So [Balaam] said to [Balak]: These people’s G-d hates sexual immorality… Come, I will give you advice…” (Sanhedrin 106a). His advice to King Balak was to send the daughters of his nation to seduce the Jews, and thereby to weaken them fatally; and his advice worked all too well.

So the final joke of the parashah – this cruel, hideous, bloody joke – was on us, when twenty-four thousand Jews died in the resulting plague (Numbers 25:1-9).

Source: Daniel Pinner – Arutz Sheva