In the end, we are all animals


As part of my application to Rabbinical School at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, I wrote a d’var torah on parashat Balak (my favorite in the Torah). Just in time for this Shabbat, here it is:

Friedrich Nietzsche, in his text On the Genealogy of Morals, presents an existentialist question  for humanity to wrestle with: “We have never sought ourselves – how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?” In this almost Zen Koan-like charge, Nietzsche challenges us to acknowledge and realize the importance of active self-reflection. But for the non-existentialist, it might be asked why we should even want to find ourselves? And what should we do once we have found ourselves? Parashat Balak provides us with answers to these questions.

At first glance, Balak presents much that is challenging to the modern reader: a dramatic encounter between the Israelites and a hostile ruler at the edges of the Promised Land, a pagan attempt to curse the Israelites, prophecies on the future of the Jewish people, and a talking donkey to boot. What are we to make of this tale? In his reading of the parasha, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner posits that “taken literally, the whole story is obviously silly.” Theologians and biblical historians have read the story contextually as a case against false prophets and in support of the omniscience of God; Robert Alter teaches in his Five Books of Moses that the entire story is a polemic against paganism.

Yet we do not have to search far to find other stories that appear to be “silly” at face value (consider Jonah’s being devoured by a fish), and the Tanakh is replete with warnings against false prophecy and paganism; why should we need yet another narrative, particularly one so peculiar in content? Parashat Balak must hold greater significance than simply another admonishment of false prophets. To be sure, the Talmud calls this parasha “the Book of Balaam” (Yerushalmi Sota 5), singling out the character of Balaam and indicating that this particular story has an elevated level of importance.

Given that the phenomenon of a talking animal occurs in only one other instance in the entire Tanakh, many focus on the talking donkey as an example of the atypical narrative. But we must ask ourselves: what is ultimately more important – that the donkey spoke, or that the donkey saw? Consider Nietzsche’s imperative on the importance of active searching for something in order to find it. Whether taken as literally true or as allegory, Balaam’s donkey was able to see what humans could not. The donkey sees an angel of God, while Balaam merely stumbles upon it. What can we glean from this?

First and foremost, that Balaam’s donkey was able to see the angel before Balaam himself could has powerful didactic value. This teaches us about the importance of actively searching for God’s presence in our lives and of being open to God making God’s self known at times and in ways in which we least expect it. That Balaam is reproached by the angel for abusing his donkey communicates Judaism’s concern for the wellbeing of animals – a value that Talmud mandates through its teachings on tza’ar ba’alei chayim (Bava Metzia 32b). That Balaam was not able to see the angel itself, nor that his animal was trying to save his life, contains perhaps the greatest teaching of all. It presents a challenge to us to think about how to expand our vision when limited, and to find ways to see what we can’t. To be sure, the story challenges us in an existential way to think about how our own humanity may be limiting.

The notion of animals teaching humans is not foreign to Jewish thought, and the importance of animals in Jewish life is also not to be underestimated. The Midrash teaches that “the wisdom of animals often puts human beings to shame… hence God arranged them to be mute” (Bamidbar Rabbah 20:19). Kushner moves beyond his initial sarcastic reading of Balak to suggest that “even though it makes us uncomfortable, animals can and do know things hidden from human perception and people do routinely communicate with them.” Janine Benyus, an animal sciences and human innovation author, writes about the many things humanity can learn from animals, a concept known as biomimicry. Benyus teaches that too often we think about how to use animals as tools for human productivity and enjoyment, rather than as beings we can learn from. Rabbi Avi Orlow, picking up on the concept of biomimicry, argues that in Judaism, there is a precedent that animals are to be learned from and not just used. Orlow teaches that “we need to mimic the best of animal behavior… in the end we are all animals.”

Eventually, Balaam does come to see things; he prophesizes a significant future for the Israelites and through his words we receive one of the most well known prophecies in Judaism. In Hebrew, he says to the Israelites “Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov…”– “How good are your tents, Jacob…” Interpreting this text, the 19th Century Russian rabbi, the Malbim, teaches that what Balaam came to see was not what the Israelites were living in (tents), but literally how they were living with each other through moral goodness. The Malbim suggests that with his new vision, Balaam saw moral, not aesthetic beauty.

Because Balaam’s prophecies are the words of God channeled through his mouth, what does this suggest that God seeks of us? That we should seek goodness in others; that we should treat others (including animals) with kindness; that we should not inflate our egos – as Balaam did – to assume we can divine God’s will; and that we should be open to listening and learning from others, even those we may consider inferior (including animals). We learn how to accomplish this through the model of the donkey – by looking for those things that others can’t see, and by actively searching for moral goodness.

A Chasidic proverb reflects on the importance of searching and reflection as a pathway to self-improvement in much the same way Nietzsche does:

I cannot find redemption until I see the flaws in my own soul, and try to correct them. Nor can a people be redeemed until it sees the flaws in its own soul, and tries to correct them. But whether it be an individual or a people, if we shut out the realization of our own flaws we are shutting out redemption. We can be redeemed only to the extent that we see ourselves.

Ultimately, in searching for ourselves and for God, we should consider:  if Balaam can learn from a donkey where to look, can we?