In one of the trippiest moments in all of Torah, Balaam’s donkey opens its mouth and speaks. And not only does it speak, it speaks more soundly than its holy-man rider. It’s Shrek meets wisdom literature.
Balaam, the holy-man, is traveling to visit Balak, the Moabite king, who wants Balaam to curse the Israelites, whom he perceives as a danger to Moab.
Balaam has already been warned (by God!) not to curse the Israelites, but he goes to meet Balak anyway. Balaam is wooed by words of the king’s messengers and the immense wealth the king offers to him. Despite his power of words to curse and to bless, Balaam wants more – the power of wealth, the power of the king, who is willing to give him anything he desires.
During the journey, Balaam’s donkey seems to misbehave, going one way when Balaam wants it to go another, and stopping completely and lying down under him when Balaam wants to go on. Balaam, his power undermined by a lowly donkey, becomes enraged. After all, he is an important holy-man on an important mission for an important king. We can imagine him saying: “Don’t you know who I think I am!”
Impotently, Balaam curses and strikes the donkey, and still it will not move. To the surprise of most readers, the donkey responds not with howls and haws, but with words! But Balaam is so limited by his rage, he doesn’t immediately pause or respond with surprise. Instead, he argues with it! “Balaam said to the ass, ‘You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.’”
What Balaam does not see is that his obsession with power and self-importance has hidden what is right in front of him: a sword-wielding angel of God standing immediately in their path. The donkey sees this angel and seeks to protect Balaam by avoiding the angel. But Balaam, stuck in his self-importance, is convinced he is right, that he knows all – that he is, as we say at Beit T’Shuvah, the smartest one in the room.
So many of us come to Beit T’Shuvah thinking that we know best, that we know how to get free from our addictions alone, or at the very least, that we know ourselves. We think we’re smarter than our therapist, our counselor, our spiritual counselor, our sponsor, Rabbi Mark, or even Harriet. And you might be smarter than all of us (except Harriet – you’re definitely not smarter than Harriet), but as the Talmud says: “A captive cannot release themselves from their own prison” (Berakhot 5b).
Each of us has limited vision because we create prisons in our own minds – prisons that limit us because of who we think we are or who we think others want us to be. How much do we miss in life because of the walls and bars we build around ourselves! A resident described recently that he was hiking in South America and his tour guide said: “Stop! Look!” And with a telescope showed him a distant tree frog. When the resident asked the tour guide how he saw the tree frog from so far away, he replied: “I was looking for it.” Balaam, despite his status as a holy-man, despite how smart or important he may be, is not looking for God. He is looking only for power – wealth, importance, etc.
Only when Balaam’s donkey speaks does he finally begin to understand that he doesn’t understand. It says: “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” Balaam replies: “No.” Balaam finally hears, and just as he hears, God “uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of Adonai standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand.” Balaam hears, and then he sees: the world is not as I wanted it to be. I am as mortal as anyone else – and even this donkey knows it better than I do.
Balaam becomes willing to hear and see the world not as he wishes it to be, but as it is – even in the most unexpected place: from the mouth of a donkey. Then he falls on his face because he knows his arrogance nearly got him killed.
How do you orient yourself towards seeing beyond your own narrow vision? To be willing to admit that even a donkey may know more than you do?
Cultivate the humility to let truth be seen – truth about you and truth about the path you are walking.
Balaam does not express humility until after God uncovers his eyes and he sees this frightening angel in his path. Only then does he “fall on his face” – perhaps in fear of the deadly consequences for his actions. But had he fallen on his face every morning, had he cultivated humility and known just how powerful and how powerless he was because of this morning practice, he would not have become “a mockery,” he would not have been rageful, and he would have been the holy-man he claimed to be.
To know truth, to know who you truly are, have the humility to let truth be seen. Fall on your face every damn day.
Rabbi Kerry Chaplin