If some parts of the Torah seem far-fetched to the more skeptically-minded among us, Parshat Balak must seem downright crazy. Then again, imaginative play is a critical component of a healthy childhood, and perhaps this too is Torah.
We get mixed messages when it comes to the power of words versus actions. Do we believe the pen is mightier than the sword, or do we believe sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me? Do we believe that actions speak louder than words, or do we believe that loose lips sink ships? Which is it, words or actions?
This week we read a narrative filled with opportunities to do the right or wrong action and say the right or wrong words. Yes, you’re remembering correctly. This is the parsha with the talking donkey. Parshat Balak is the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say.
On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. The donkey can see the angel; Balam cannot. So Balam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.
The donkey, in a voice I have to assume sounds remarkably like Eddie Murphy, since that’s my only other point of reference for talking donkeys, cries, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balam says to him, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The donkey responds, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Balam can only respond, “No.” Actually, in the old JPS translation, Balam doesn’t say “No,” he says “Nay,” which adds a nice new layer to the meaning when you think about it. At this point God opens Balam’s eyes so he too can see God as the roadblock.
Once he arrives in Moav, Balam is greeted by Balak with great honor, which changes to anger when Balam praises rather than curses the Israelites, as Balak had instructed him.
A talking donkey, a mystical sorcerer, war – it’s a complicated, dramatic parshah, to say the least. But at the heart of it is the power of words. Rabbinic commentary points out that Balam had set out to destroy an entire people simply by cursing them. If that was possible, parents of teenagers all over the world would be in trouble. Why is it that Balam sought to destroy a nation by cursing, but felt the threat of a sword was the only way to get a single donkey to move?
The problem with our “words versus action” debate is that it’s a two-sided concept, when it really should have three sides. What completes that triangle? Thought. Words, actions, and thoughts are what move us forward.
Balam is too quick to jump into action, beating and threatening the donkey, not because he doesn’t speak first, but because he doesn’t think first. Our challenge is to move from empty words and actions toward those of substance. And the way to do that is through thought, through intention, through an understanding of the situation before anything else. Only then will our words and actions carry the meaning they need to enact change.