Torah Commentary: Perashat Balak: Becoming-Mule, Becoming-Human

Perashat Balak stands as a unique narrative segment in the Torah. For the first time, we are presented with a narrative episode which is entirely not experienced by the Israelites; a “behind the scenes” presentation, or to use contemporary film theory terminology, we are “sutured in” from an entirely different vantage point, outside of the usual concern with the Exodus. It can be assumed that if the Torah had not told us this story, no one would have ever known it, as it all takes place outside the horizon of the participants of the Exodus.

The film theory analogy may not be far off. In reading through this passage, one is struck by a preponderance of visual terminology. Again and again terms dealing with sight are used, even down to the description of the Israelite masses as covering “eyn haaretz”, the “eye of the land”. The Daat Moshe (son of the Magid of Kozhnitz, and an important thinker in his own right) suggests that even the name of the king of Moab, protagonist of our tale, Balak ben Zippor, reflects this, as the word “zippor” is akin to the aramaic “tzafra nahir”, inferring a certain type of clarity, as of daylight. Perhaps our text is trying to teach us a lesson in how to “see”?

This passage is so cinematic that there is even a novel special effect thrown in, when the bad guy Bilaam’s donkey starts to speak, a bit of “magical realism” tossed in, a sort of effect not found elsewhere in the Torah.

Now even if the Torah felt it necessary to give an historical perspective on how the surrounding tribal peoples responded to the emergence of the Israelites on the scene, and even if the resulting positive spin of Bilaam’s blessings are worth preserving, why tell us the odd story of the talking mule? The text never finds it important to present, for example, the rituals or political structures during the period of slavery in Egypt, so why do we need to know the details of Bilaam’s escapades? This type of story seems more reminiscent of those odd Midrashim that attempt to fill in gaps in the narrative, as in the details of Moshe’s adventures in Midian, etc. So what is this episode, and particularly the talking donkey segment, attempting to teach us?

The medieval commentators can be roughly grouped around two general approaches to this question. One, with a strong basis in the Midrashim, is to derisively compare Bilaam with Moshe (Moses) as a leadership paradigm (ie Bilaam couldn’t control his donkey yet he wanted to destroy a whole people). The other approach, found in the Ibn Ezra, Abravanel, and others, is to teach us “who created speech in man”, that is, that the ultimate source of the communication is Gd. In other words, the source of the prophecy, and how it is used or misused, is contrasted in the presentation of Bilaam vs. that of Moshe.

Where the medieval thinkers deal with the communication and its source itself, the Hassidic thinkers deal with transmission, the challenge facing the individual in relating the prophetic message. The Beer Mayim Hayim , in a very postmodern sounding commentary, points out that there can be no pure message that does not first pass through a filter of interpretation. There is no platonic absolute unsullied message present that occurs at the moment of transmission, not even a divine, prophetic message. The same prophetic divine word will take on different literary form based on the personality of the individual who presents it. Thus, for example, King Josiah, when requesting a prophetic viewpoint, sent for Hulda the prophetess rather than Jeremiah the prophet, because he felt that even a negative message from God would be softened if it was transmitted via the more sympathetic Hulda, as opposed to the more petulant prophet Jeremiah. For this reason we see that Bilam, who intuited that God’s prophecy regarding the Israelites would contain a blessing, the opposite of his own personal wishes, pushed hard to be the mouthpiece for the prophecy, knowing that even a positive message can be subverted by the way in which it would be uttered by him. To counter Bilaam’s intention according to this view, we are told in verse 5 that “God put the words in the mouth of Bilaam”, which the Talmud reads as an exception to the usual transmission of speech, in that God placed either an angel or a bridle in his mouth (BT Sanhedrin 105:), not allowing Bilaam to interpret and interfere, that is, this particular message only was removed from the grasp of human agency.

The Kedushat Levi explains that this cinematic presentation of the talking donkey episode was an externalized manifestation of Bilaam’s inner life. Bilaam is trying to move in one direction, and his animal insists on going a different way. How does Bilaam respond? With violence; he whacks the animal. The animal, surprisingly, protests vocally, until an angel intercedes by revealing itself, leading to Bilaam’s comprehension of the situation. According to the Kedushat Levi, Bilaam should have come to infer from all of this weirdness, a self-understanding of his own failure in attempting to subvert Gd’s message. One would think that a prophet, whose job it is to transmit Gd’s word to the community, (much like any artist in any media who is trying to present some kind of novel vision), must be engaged with the world, must learn to become, to quote Henry James, “one upon whom nothing is wasted”. He or she must be in constant engagement with all that is transpiring in the world around, always observing, listening, always reformulating. How could a prophet not interpret an event as remarkable as this talking mule episode, as being in some ways relevant to his saga? How could one truly ‘conscious’ read it in any other way than as a sign not to proceed with his plans?

The donkey was, according to the Kedushat Levi, actually the truer prophet, attempting to warn Bilaam against proceeding with his plans, but instead of being sensitive to this rather overt omen, Bilaam resorts to violence. I suggest, in this vein, that perhaps Bilaam might have read into his own violent response to an animal, the futility of the use of violence. Perhaps Bilaam should have identified himself with the donkey,  as one veers off the path in order to avoid confronting the divine presence and as a result gets beaten, and understand in his own case that veering off the path and attempting to distort his prophecy would result ultimately in violence.

An interesting reading concerned with the means of transmission as critical to the message itself is that of R. Zadok Hacohen. The Zohar links the three “mouths” found in these perashiyot- the pi habe’er (“mouth of the well”), the pi ha’ aretz (“mouth of the earth” formed to swallow Korach and his gang), and the pi ha’aton (the talking donkey of our story here).

R. Zadok explains that these three mouths represent three approaches to the divine, derived from three forms of transmission. The pi habe’er, the watery oasis, is representative of the Oral Law, the divine transmission that incorporates the need for mutual dialogue; God transmitted the law as text, the way that text is actualized in a living society is dependent upon the way in which the community chooses to “read it”.

The pi ha’aretz, the mouth of the earth created to swallow Korach, is a divine transmission which symbolizes punishment, a route which can awaken one to legitimate self-correction, even when evoked at the last moment; we are taught in the midrashim that repentance by the conspirators would have been accepted even as the Korach co-conspirators were tumbling downwards through the abyss.

The third type of divine transmission is that symbolized by the pi ha’aton, the donkey’s speech. This “speech” which derived from an agent normally without speech, implies that from within every moment of consciousness, if we are sensitive and attentive to them, we could see and hear signals, which should we choose to interpret, would alter our lives in a dramatic fashion. The validation or legitimation of a truth statement is made by the subject, not the vehicle of the message, a subject who chooses to appropriate this message, to weave this message into their own personal narrative. To quote the Peri Zaddik:

…the donkey’s speech teaches us that even in a situation where the speaker himself has no idea what he is transmitting, such as the donkey in our case, there is still truth to be found there…

Let’s take this finding of truth in unusual areas to an even deeper place. Let us look at the conversation between Bilaam and his donkey. After Bilaam gets annoyed with his animal’s evasive maneuvers (the animal recoiling from the angel that Bilaam is yet unable to see), the text relates that he whacks the poor animal with his staff. In response, God “opens the donkey’s mouth”, but no brilliant penetrating discourse emerges- the donkey simply bleats, “what did I do to you to deserve being beaten thrice?” Bilaam doesn’t act surprised, he simply answers the animal’s question and then threatens his wonder-donkey. The animal continues to complain, “do I deserve this after so many years” and Bilaam responds, simply: “No”. Bilaam doesn’t jump with surprise and yell, “hey, what’s going on here, my animal is talking!”

The lack of surprise here is noteworthy. As medical students learn in psychiatry rotations, surprise, or the lack of surprise is an important clinical finding. How do I know that the schizophrenic calmly informing me in the emergency room, of how he was transported across the universe by alien bats from hell, isn’t telling us the truth? If something that horrifying were to happen to a “normal” individual, that individual would likely be crying and in terrible shock; it is the calm that is illustrative. This is akin to Gregor Samsa’s non-response upon finding out that he had been transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin in Kafka’s Metamophisis. He doesn’t spend any time aghast at this horrible violation of nature; he is more concerned with possibly getting fired from work. Yet, Kafka didn’t intend Gregor Samsa to be merely schizophrenic. Kafka had a more interesting social phenomena to illustrate with this story, and I suggest that a similar message is present here as well.

I would like to present a reading of this episode as a descent by Bilaam into the realm of the animal, into “animality”. Bilaam and his animal have a “routine” conversation, man and domestic animal, because at this point they are at the same level of discourse, the level of “being animal”.

What typifies this level of “being-animal”? George Battaile in the opening chapter of his Theory of Religion defines animality as immediacy and immanence, the paradigm of which is the situation of one animal eating another- there is no autonomy of one and dependence of the other, no yearning for revenge, no analysis of motivates, it is simply a response that occurs when a larger animal needs to eat and a smaller one is present for eating:

The apathy that the gaze of the animal expresses after the combat is the sign of an existence this is essentially on a level with the world in which it moves like water in water…

Perhaps we can characterize animality with the following points:

1. Animals don’t think of themselves historically. They do not make long term plans and do not look back at their past.

2. Social interactions among the animals are not geared towards transcendence. They do not yearn for enlightenment or higher spiritual achievement. They band together in some situations for food, but do not hesitate to kill one another en route to a female in heat.

Deleuze and Guattari interpret Freud’s seminal Wolf man case study in terms of this kind of animality. They say it is not castration which the wolf man (as a child) was fearing when he imagined seeing all those wolves in his tree, as thought Freud; rather, it was a fear of “becoming animal”, of losing personal individuality and uniqueness and “becoming herd”.

This descent into animality is what Bilaam is forced to experience before his encounter with the Israelite tribes, whose emergence from the animality of slavery into unique peoplehood, will serve in all of history to teach two human responses to the continued threat of a descent back into animality by mankind. The two counter-animal phenomena are introduced into this episode by the Midrash, which notes the use of an odd Hebrew word describing the triple beating by Bilaam “three times”; instead of the more usual “peamim”, the term used is “shalosh regalim”, which can also mean “three legs” and “three festivals”. The Midrash explains that this phrase used here is meant to resonate with just those two meanings of the word regel:

1. Three “legs” upon which the community stands being the three forefathers of the people, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov; and

2. Three major festivals the Jewish people historically celebrate,  which were accompanied by pilgrimage and gathering in Jerusalem.

Bilaam, and we the readers contemplating this odd text, are reminded of the purpose of human, social and Jewish existence. Human beings, as opposed to animals, have a history, implying beginnings and future goals. Humans ought to congregate and interact not merely as herd, and should be engaged in mutual dialogue geared for the betterment of society and universal transcendence.

The people Bilaam is about to encounter have broken away from the terror of the deepest form of animality, the cruelty of slavery, where human beings have their history and their dreams taken away, exactly like animals, subject to an existence entirely in the immediacy of responding to another’ orders, the master’s untransformed desire. Perhaps in this context, the image the text presents of an angel with a sword blocking the animal’s path, is meant to parallel the image of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as narrated in Genesis, another road blocked by a sword carrying angel, the expulsion from Eden representing (in Maimonides’ reading) the birth of subjectivity and un-transcendent desire. Mankind may in the course of history, descend to animality, but a path upward to enlightenment from this situation, to becoming-human, is the message of the Exodus out of slavery and toward the “promised land”.

Perhaps the idea of ‘becoming-human’ versus ‘becoming-animal’ may explain the purpose of presenting this “behind the scenes” story at this point in the text. The Sefat Emet points out repeatedly that thesse chapters making up the end of the book of Bamidbar and on through the Book of Devarim, mark the transition from the Exodus and the desert experience, to the next phase of Israelite history, that of settling the land.

The process of becoming a free nation is not merely to rise above simply being a band of slaves running away from a bad situation, but involves becoming a People, an entity with a distinctive and meaningful social existence, with a past, and with dreams, with a future that impacts upon the unfolding of human history, with a vision towards a different future, no longer simply looking at existence with the apathetic gaze of the animal or that of some hopeless anomic Kafkaesque figure.

Bilaam comes to recognize this attainment of the “becoming human”, as can be seen by the nature of his visions and blessings (with their emphasis upon issues such as the social arrangement of the people, as in the reading of “ma tovu oholecha Yaakov”, “how goodly are thy tents”), and so must we from time to time, especially in dark times where becoming-animal appears to be the order of the day.


2 thoughts on “Torah Commentary: Perashat Balak: Becoming-Mule, Becoming-Human

  1. I take issue with the way animals are described here. Beings without intelligence, apathetic, living in herds where they obey another’s orders and eat or be eaten. A caricature and one of the worst kind. Unknown makes unloved. And often extinct by human hand. Or fodder for blood sports. Or the animal farming industry (I wonder whether animals are still kosher reared in horrific ways like that and fed their own species (cows, chicken who all get to eat also their own faeces, antibiotics and toxins in big chuncks and are not let out to gaze or in anyway live their life as meant without daylight; and slaughtered en masse and often not in one stroke which makes it non kosher but still sold as such)

    This so much shows that the writer and for that matter a lot of commentators as well, have not only not
    grown up with animals but are weary of or indifferent to them, scared or just plain ignorant. Talking about a choice and an interpretation. Of life and living beings who were all created for their own sake (unexplored territory in Judaism unfortunately and quite ununderstandably since we share the planet with nature and animals not only with books and Jews) certainly not for human’s sake although some humans like to think this way sometimes.

    Animals do not consist of a generic heap which can be generalized.

    The only thing that lacked in the text is that they were drooling, otherwise it was a very unworthy description of intelligent and sentient beings whose communication we simply cannot understand (same with trees; but with a lack of knowledge you can now cast me as new age (no), tree hugger (derogatory term but I do love and respect and try to find out about God’s creation and know a thing or two but do not hug trees; there is a video made by Greenpeace where the communication between trees is made audible).

    Also animals do have memory of not only faces of their own family and/or group, but also of other groups of their own species, humans and other species. They also can and do remember situations, good and bad. Also of years ago. So if they know. Who are you to state they have no idea about past, present, future? Because you do not know. But that does not say it is necessarily true.

    Animals have long been undervalued since we love to overvalue ourselves as a species and think this is all made only for us to use and exploit. To “dehumanize” or deny individuality and respect to another species comes in handy then. I personally find that arrogant and undeveloped.

    Another striking thing is that by denying animals intelligence (gazillions of them all divided in trillions of species, subspecies, families of etc,) one is denying acceptance if not respect for the Creator’s apparent will to endow all creatures (including stars) with intelligence.

    It is the human being who more often than not prefers to live in the herd in thinking, talking, behaving and dressing. Up to the point that the human wants to order others around for power’s sake (ego) and lack of respect of the other and thus God’s creation and will. All the more toward animals and nature in general. Hence the deplorable state of this planet in a time where our technology could do so much more good than it does now since all we seem to care about is profits and domination (power).
    Not least us Jews esp. orthodox Jews with their black or blue costume and white shirts where decades ago everyone still kind of knew to dress as an individual).
    Feeling superior to everything he/she does not understand or cannot understand or feel fearful and destructive towards the other whether human or animal. Judaism has a lot more to offer than this.

  2. Abigail, I don’t see anything in this essay supporting the claims you are making.

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