Wednesday, 02 Jul 2014

Written by Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris

Poor Balaam, or more to the point, poor Balaam’s donkey. The unfortunate creature just seemed to get it at all ends. Balaam wanted to go. The messenger of God did not want Balaam to go. Was it the donkey’s fault that Balaam, despite his prophetic pretensions, could not see the messenger of God? The donkey just wanted out of the messenger’s way. Who could blame her – sometimes we just don’t want to be where we end up. Some days we all wonder if getting out of bed was not quite the right choice. Certainly we all have days where we imagine how much better it would be if we were somewhere else. I can only imagine that Balaam’s donkey had precisely that sort of day – the sort of day where she remembered how much nicer some previous journey with her master had been or where she remembered that ten years earlier she had still been a mere foal wandering the green pastures with her mother or something equally pleasant and lacking in pain. After all, does she not cry out in Nu 22: 30:

הלוא אנכי אתנך אשר-רכבת עלי מעודך עד-היום הזה! ההסכן הסכנתי לעשות לך כה?                                                   

Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along to this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?

In other words, the miffed creature says, “Haven’t I been your faithful stead for years? Have I ever done this to you before? Don’t you think that there might be some sort of good reason why I am behaving like this or do you just like beating me?” We really have to feel for the donkey at this moment – she can see that she is saving the hapless prophet (not to mention her own hide) from imminent death at the hand of the messenger of God, but Balaam is too blind to notice. Balaam can hear God in his dreams, but he cannot discern the Divine presence of a messenger in real life. So extra gold stars for the donkey, though she gets a pretty bad beating noticing what her master cannot.

And, yet, isn’t that so often the way for too many of us. We do not physically beat whomever it is that appears to keep us from where we want to go, but we all too often metaphorically or emotionally or psychologically beat up on those (ourselves or others) who seem to hold us back. Whether the matters are mundane or life altering, we all too often somehow find ourselves where we think we have no desire to be and spend a lot of time beating up on those around us who appear to block us.

Take our Prime Minister, David Cameron, who undoubtedly feels rather blocked this week in his ambitions to reform the European Union. If only Jean-Claude Juncker were to have stepped out of the way, stopped obstructing Mr. Cameron’s plans. Instead Mr. Cameron has found himself isolated and embarrassed, rather stuck without a clear way out. And to add insult to injury, Mr. Cameron has even been forced this week to ring Mr. Juncker to congratulate him. It is as though in the midst of trying to curse the European project, Mr. Cameron has suddenly had to stand off from afar and observe how goodly the tents and lovely the dwelling places of Europe might actually be. Or not. It’s just a thought.

But seriously, I do not want to risk a political incident, only to suggest that sometimes when we are stuck, it might just be God’s way of letting us know that we should stand back and re-evaluate our positions. Perhaps, stopping, reflecting, and even turning back from our current course is not such a bad idea on occasion. Perhaps the other we fear (or are paid to curse) is not quite as terrible as we might imagine. Or maybe the angel of God is just trying to protect us and the hapless animal or friend or even foe who has prevented us from moving forwards. Maybe the protection we most need sometimes is from ourselves. Which is why we should spare a small thought for all the people (or talking animals) that block us in our work or relationships or lives in general. After all, they end up getting beaten, mostly metaphorically, but occasionally physically, too, and they might well be doing us a service.

Poor Balaam’s donkey. She really did get the raw end of the deal. But in the end Balaam found himself, despite his hesitations and his concerns and his anxieties, exactly where he needed to be. And when he finally allowed himself to be present in that moment, he paid an important service not only in blessing, and not cursing, the children of Israel, but also in affirming the true gift of his own personal prophecy. In forcing Balaam to stop and listen to the messenger of God, Balaam’s donkey ensured that when the moment came, Balaam was able to fulfil his destiny appropriately. It is something to chew over whenever and wherever we feel that we have been blocked from where we intended to go or dragged somewhere that we had not intended to be.

Rabbi Dr Deborah Kahn-Harris
Ordained Leo Baeck College 1996

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.