Num. 19:1 – 22:1/Num. 22:2 – 25:9
Rabbi Gary Pokras
If animals could talk, what would they say? In this week’s double parasha, the pagan prophet Balaam finds out. As the Israelites made their way closer to the Promised Land, they asked for passage through the territory of a king named Balak. The king, frightened by their numbers, refused, and instead sent for the prophet Balaam to place a curse upon the Israelites. Balaam declined, twice, stating that he could only utter the words that God placed in his mouth. However, when a third delegation from the king arrived, God appeared to Balaam in the night and said: “If these men have come to call you, rise, go with them. But only the word that I speak to you shall you do.” [Num. 22:20]
The next morning, Balaam went with the men. Then something quite extraordinary happens. Whether Balaam had done something wrong, or God had a change of heart, God’s wrath flared against Balaam [Num. 22:22], and God placed an angel in the road with an unsheathed sword to stop him.
To make things more interesting, the angel was only visible to the donkey upon which Balaam rode. The donkey swerved from the road to avoid the angel, but Balaam smacked her to get back on the path. Later, when the path narrowed and the angel blocked the way, the donkey pressed against a wall and squished Balaam’s leg – so he smacked her again. Finally, when the path was so narrow that there was no way around, the donkey just stopped and lied down under Balaam. At this point, Balaam’s anger exploded, and he beat the donkey mercilessly. What follows is one of the most extraordinary moments in all of Torah. God gave the donkey the ability to speak, and she said to Balaam: “What have I done to you that you should have struck me these three times? … Am I not your donkey upon whom you have been riding your whole life till this day? Have I ever acted this way toward you?” [Ex. 22:28 and 30] The answer, of course, is “no.” Then God made the angel visible to Balaam, who recognized his wrong and discovered that it was he, himself, who was the donkey.
In the Talmud we learn: “One who tears his clothes, smashes property, or scatters money in his anger is as one who worships idols.” [Talmud Bavli, Shabbat, 105b] Rabbi Harvey Winokur interprets this to mean “when anger flares up in our heart, there is no place for God.”1 Anger plays a significant role in this parasha. God’s anger leads Balaam into a situation that he is utterly ill-equipped to handle, because the angel is invisible. This seems quite out of character for the kind and compassionate God, with the patience to teach Israel (sometimes through punishment) with clarity and focus. Similarly, Balaam’s anger prevents him from seeing God’s angel – at least indirectly. When his donkey strays from her typical behavior, instead of attempting to discover the reason, he strikes her in anger. Multiple times.
Sometimes Torah provides us with examples of how to act, and other times with examples of how not to act. In Chukkat/Balak we learn that decisions made in anger lead to further conflict. The Talmud was right: when our anger flares, there is no room for anything else – including God or each other. Our anger becomes the only thing we serve, and when we follow our anger, we indeed fall into idolatry.