Parshat Balak: Numbers 22:2-25:9; Micah 5:6-6:8.
By Rabbi Elliott Pachter
A talking donkey? Middle school metal shop class? What do they have in common? Read on.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read a most strange and amusing story. Bil’am, the prophet, has been hired by Balak, the Moabite king, to curse the Israelite nation. En route to carry out his mission, Bil’am is frustrated that the donkey, on which he is riding, suddenly stops.
Bil’am, unaware that his donkey is looking at an angel holding a sword, hits his donkey three times.
Suddenly the donkey turns to Bil’am and asks: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”
This cute story turns out to be a metaphoric message from God to Bil’am. Just as God can cause the donkey to speak, all the more so God can cause the prophet to say blessings instead of curses.
Beyond the context of this story, the mouth of Bil’am’s donkey is mentioned in Pirkei Avot 5:6 as one of the items God created in the twilight period at the conclusion of the sixth day, just prior to the first Shabbat.
Consider the significance of this message. God’s creation of the world consisted of six complete days of work, followed by 24 hours of rest.
Our workweek and observance of Shabbat are a bit different. In order to avoid violating the Shabbat, we add a minimum of an hour to our weekly holy day. We begin Shabbat prior to sundown on Friday, and we don’t conclude until darkness arrives on Saturday night.
Even the “workaholic” Sabbath observer is unable to work six complete days and instead ceases work prior to the onset of twilight.
But God is different. And so God’s miraculous and mysterious creation contains an even more miraculous and mysterious time period: the twilight as the first Shabbat is about to arrive. During these waning minutes of creation, God produced a series of special items, among them the mouth of Bil’am’s donkey and the first set of tongs.
We recognize that an actual talking donkey is miraculous. Remember that Shrek’s pal and Mr. Ed (I know, he was a horse, but a talking one, nonetheless) are fictional characters.
But, what’s miraculous or mysterious about tongs?
Here is where I am taken back to middle school metal shop class. To make tongs or similar projects, the metal had to be made “red hot” to be bent into its desired shape.
A red-hot metal rod cannot be held in an unprotected human hand. The only way to do such a project is to hold the hot metal with a pair of tongs.
So far, so good, but how did the first tongs get made? For a human, another set of tongs had to have pre-existed. Or, we can conclude that the human creator of the first set of tongs sacrificed his/her own hands, which surely would have been destroyed beyond recognition from the burns.
A final possibility is that the first set of tongs was created by God, during the twilight period just prior to the onset of the original Shabbat. After that, thanks to God’s generous gift, new tongs can be made by anyone who desires.
Here, then, is a lesson from Parshat Balak. Think hard about what gifts you possess that come wholly from God, starting with your health and your miraculous body. Think about the wonder of the natural world and how you benefit from it each and every day. We are eternally grateful that God was wise and kind enough to provide us with tongs and so much more.
Rabbi Elliot Pachter is the rabbinic adviser at the Frankel Jewish Academy and rabbi emeritus at Congregation B’nai Moshe, both in West Bloomfield.