Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Parshat Balak

Bilam and his Talking Ass

In this week's parsha we witness a strange event which is almost unprecedented in Biblical literature, the episode of Bialm and his talking ass.

The episode is quite simple. Bilam is on a journey to curse Israel and is riding on his ass. Unbeknown to him, an angel with an outstretched sword is waiting to stop him. Seeing the angel, the ass strays from the path into an open field. Bilam is angry with his ass and hits it. They continue on journey and the angel appears again. This time they are not on open field but in avineyard ith: "with a fence on this side and a fence on that side" (Bemidbar 22:24). In order to bypass the angel, the ass is forced to squeeze up to one side of the path. In so doing, it squashes Bilam's leg up against the wall. Bilam is angry again and beats the ass again and they continue on their journey.

The angel appears again, this time on a very narrow path. There is no way of bypassing the angel and so the ass stops "it crouched down under Bilam" (ibid 27). Bilam again hits the ass. But then something strange happens. "The Lord opened the mouth of the ass" and spoke with Bilam (ibid 28).

The ass asks Bilam if had it ever been disloyal before. Bilam, rebuked can only answer with one word: "No" (ibid 30). Only then does Bilam recognize he angel.

What is going on here? What is the message of this story?

Bilam was a prophet of God, a person with extra insight and the ability to God's message to his people. The ass is the most stupid of all animals, with little insight and intellect, yet it humiliates Bilam.

  • Bilam is on a journey to kill Israel with words, yet he can't even kill his own ass.
  • Bilam is a prophet with prophetic sight, yet he can't see what is own donkey sees.
  • He claims to be wise, but he doesn't know the basic truth that his ass does.
  • Bilam has the word of God in his mouth, yet he cannot win an argument with his own ass.
  • Bilam says he would kill his ass if only he had a sword, but he can't see that there is a sword nearby, in the hands of the angel.

God is trying to teach Bilam the error of his ways. If he follows the will of God, he can be a supreme being with the power of prophecy. However, if he strays from God's path, he is even lower than his own ass.

Last year's Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Pinchas’ Legal Precedent” appears at

Another Sedra Short on Parshat Balak, entitled: "Balak's Fear” appears at

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