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Parshas Balak (5772)

Listen to your Donkey!

Do you remember that old T.V. show about Mister Ed, the talking horse? Well, in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Balak, we find the story of the talking donkey!

That's right …. the talking donkey! The Torah tells us that Balak, King of Moav, hired the non-Jewish prophet, Bilaam, to curse the Jewish people. (“Want to put a jinx on your enemy? Just call 1(800) DIAL-A-CURSE. Our operators are standing by. Order now! Must be 18 years or older. Moabite residents pay 5% sales tax. Please curse responsibly.”)

As Bilaam was riding his donkey to meet with Balak, G-d sent an angel to block his path. The donkey sensed the angel and turned to the side, but Bilaam didn't see anything. So he struck his loyal donkey repeatedly. At which point, G-d performed a miracle, and gave the donkey the power of speech. The donkey said to its master, "What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?" To which Bilaam replied, "Because you mocked me. If only there were a sword in my hand I would now have killed you!"

Now imagine, for a second, that you’re driving home along the highway after a long day at work, and, all of a sudden, your good old Honda starts smoking under the hood. So you immediately pull over to the shoulder, open the hood, but you can't find the source of the problem. In your frustration, you slam down the hood of your car with all your might. And then your Honda says, "Hey, why did you do that to me? I didn't deserve that!"

What would your reaction be? Would you snap back at your car and say, "One more crack outta you, and I'm trading you in for a Lexus"? I don't think so. If anything, you would be amazed and awed and humbled by the supernatural, miraculous phenomenon that you had just witnessed! Yet Bilaam hears his donkey talking to him, and all he can think of is to threaten the hapless animal! What gives?

We can gain some understanding of Bilaam’s strange reaction to this open miracle with the help of a short story:

A Jewish fellow who has just made aliyah (he immigrated to the Land of Israel), takes a trip to the Upper Galilee, one of the most beautiful areas of the Holy land. As he strolls through scenic valleys full of luscious greenery, with breathtaking beauty all around him, he is greatly inspired by this wonderful land that G-d has given His people. A little further on, he notices an orange grove with a house in the middle of it. With the midday sun beating down upon him, he decides to shelter himself under the beautiful trees of the orange grove, ripping an orange off the tree and enjoying its refreshing taste. All of a sudden, a loud heavenly voice calls out, "Thou shalt not steal!" The man looks up in total awe and amazement, and proclaims, "Wow! What a great country this is! Where else can you hear G-d Himself teaching us His commandments, and have such great-tasting fruit as well?" And he takes another bite out of the orange.

We hear what we want to hear.

Bilaam had an agenda. He was bent on cursing the Jewish people. He knew very well that G-d was not happy about this. And G-d was sending him a message through the miraculous talking donkey - that the power of speech is in G-d's hands and is not to be abused by using it to curse His people. But that Divine message was lost to Bilaam's ears. His agenda and inflated ego didn't allow him to hear what he should have heard. So the amazing impact of witnessing a real live talking donkey was totally lost on him, and he just went on with life as usual, blaming the donkey for all his troubles.

Sometimes, a Rabbi devotes countless hours of preparation to a sermon in which he is going to (subtly) reprove certain well-to-do members of his synagogue for not giving enough money to charitable causes. After the Torah reading, the Rabbi gets up and delivers a masterful sermon about the mitzvah of charity, woven together with great stories, personal vignettes and even a couple of good jokes. And then, after the service, one of the wealthy individuals to whom the sermon was primarily directed, walks up to the Rabbi and says, "Rabbi, what a great sermon! I just loved those jokes!" [A scenario very similar to this one actually happened to my grandfather when he was the rabbi of a very prominent congregation in Brooklyn, NY many years ago!]

We hear what we want to hear.

Life is about challenges, struggles and growth. And everything that happens in life carries within it a potential lesson that we can learn from. If we are open to G-d’s message and to all the little and not-so-little clues and life-impacting lessons that come our way every day, then we will grow tremendously and become better, more spiritually sensitive people. But if we are filled with only our own agendas and self-absorbed interests, then even the most amazing miracles and thought-provoking lessons in life – even a donkey talking back to us – will pass us right by, having no impact on us whatsoever.

What a brilliant and powerful lesson for life … not bad for a donkey, eh?

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