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The Weekly Commentary of JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning

Parashat Balak 5764
Numbers 22:2 - 25:9
July 3, 2004    14 Tammuz 5764

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Melissa Crespy, JTS Rabbinic Fellow

One of the most challenging aspects of the Torah for modern readers, we, who have been trained to think logically and rationally, is how to interpret the miracles that occur in the narrative. Desiring to be faithful to the text, yet, not wanting to close off the rational side of our brains, contemporary readers may be troubled by passages in the Torah that clearly contradict what they know to occur naturally.

Such a passage occurs in our parashah in verses 22 through 30. Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet, sent to curse the Israelites, is riding on his donkey. Because God does not want Balaam to arrive at his destination and pronounce his curse, God sends an angel, armed with a sword, along the path Balaam is traveling. But, Balaam, despite being a seer, cannot see the angel - only his donkey can. Attempting to avoid the armed angel, the donkey swerves from the road and eventually lies down under Balaam. Incensed at his donkey, Balaam beats him, and the Torah records: "The Lord opened the ass's mouth, and she said to Balaam, 'What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" '

For a number of medieval commentators, Balaam's donkey truly spoke. In the words of Midrash Shmuel, an eleventh-century work, "Bar Kappara said, the Holy One Blessed Be He who made that which is impossible to see, be seen, that which is impossible to hear, hear, and that which is impossible to speak, speak. . . ." God, the ultimate power in the universe, has the ability to make people see thunder, make stones hear, and make donkeys speak." Nothing is beyond the power of God to do, according to the midrash. And for many of us, this is a theology with which we are comfortable.

For Rambam, the twelfth-century scholar and rationalist, to read these words literally is to belittle the awesomeness of God. He tells us in his Guide of the Perplexed (II, 42). "We have explained that wherever it is mentioned that an angel was seen or had spoken, this has happened only in a vision or a prophecy or in a dream, whether this is explicitly stated or not . . . Know this and understand it thoroughly . . . And, likewise the whole story of Balaam on the way, and of the she-ass speaking, all this happened in a vision of a prophecy, as it is finally made clear that an angel of the Lord spoke to him, i.e., it was the angel who spoke and not the donkey and therefore it was a vision.

For Rambam, though he believes in the omnipotence of God, he also believes that God created a world that functions in a rational and natural way. God does not interfere in the natural operation of the universe, and the miracles in the Bible need to be interpreted to reflect the rational workings of this world that God created. For many of us, Rambam's view of God and the world more accurately reflects our own beliefs about the rationality and natural workings of the universe. For all of us, perhaps, the broader question is, what do these miracles in the Bible teach us? Do they teach us that God is the ultimate power in the universe, and in the end, we have very little control over our lives? Do they teach us about God's compassion, for example, when God provided manna in the wilderness? Do they tell us to learn compassion from our Creator? Do they teach us that those who appear powerful, like Balaam, may actually be powerless when they try to go against God's will?

We are all unique, and we all have different views about the meaning of the miracles in the Bible. But, we can all learn from these miracles and seek out the messages they are trying to teach us and try to wrestle with and incorporate those messages into our everyday lives.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Melissa Crespy

The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.