Parshat Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9; Micah 5:6-6:8
Sometimes wisdom comes from the voices we least expect. In Balak, it comes from an ass.
Sometimes wisdom comes from the voices we hold close to our hearts. In my life, that voice is often my late father-in-law, Robert Long.
These vastly disparate voices come together for me in the story of Balaam and his donkey. At the request of Balak, king of Moab, Balaam is sent to view the Israelite camp in the desert and to curse them. Balaam initially hesitates, but eventually God gives Balaam permission to go, provided Balaam follows God’s instructions upon arrival.
So Balaam sets off on his donkey, expecting a smooth journey. Suddenly, the ass swerves from the road, and we learn from the text that the ass is able to see (while Balaam does not) an angel of God standing in the way, holding a sword. Balaam beats the ass to get her back on the road. This repeats three times — the ass sees the menacing angel while Balaam does not; the ass shies away from the danger, and Balaam beats her.
Finally, God “opened the ass’s mouth,” and she is able to plead to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” (22:30) Then God allows Balaam to see the angel, and scolds that “If [the ass] had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.” (22:33)
There is certainly an irony that discernment comes from an animal considered to be unintelligent. There is also great significance to this voice. The only other time that an animal speaks in the Torah is when the snake speaks to Eve. There it provokes harm, and here it provides wisdom. For the ass is not only able to speak, she is able to see what a prophet could not.
My father-in-law taught me about positive presumption, the idea that when someone you trust is disappointing you, first assume that the cause is something you would find forgivable. For example, if your friend is late or your colleague’s response to a request is delayed, first assume that your friend was obstructed by an unpredictable traffic accident or your colleague has a sick relative. Or, perhaps, if your donkey is refusing to move forward, it is because there is a menacing angel of God that could kill you.
In our everyday lives, positive presumption can reduce our stress (forgiving and positive thoughts cause much less anxiety that negative ones) and improve our relationships. And, you may discover that more often than not, it turns out a disappointment does stem from a forgivable cause.
As we journey through life, may we hear the voices we least expect, and the voices that come from deep within us, that encourage us to presume the positive when we can. Doing so may ultimately lead us down the unexpected path toward blessing.
Rabbi Ariana Silverman is the rabbi of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. She lives in Detroit with her family.