Thursday Thoughts: Balaam, Balak, and the Donkey
Last week, I had the honor of giving the D’var Torah at my synagogue’s Saturday morning services. Here is the speech I gave!
I work at Disney World, at one of the attractions in Animal Kingdom. I’ve worked at this ride for three years, and every day, I interact with hundreds of families from around the world. What’s interesting is how often completely different people, on completely different days, repeat the same behaviors. Here is one scenario I’ve seen many, many times.
A parent comes up to the entrance of the ride, pushing their young child in a stroller. I or one of my coworkers ask the family to park the stroller in the nearby parking lot before getting in line. The parent tells the child to get out of the stroller. The child stays seated. The parent tells them again – and again – quickly, loudly, shouting at their kid – “Get out of the stroller! Come on, get up! Get up!” But still the child stays seated. Often, once the parent starts shouting, the child begins to cry. And then the parent finally looks down, and realizes – the child’s seat belt is buckled, and they are too young to undo it on their own.
It’s understandable for a parent to become frustrated with their child, if their child does not obey them. Parents are used to being able to tell their kids what to do! But every time I see this happen, I think, “what if the parent had taken a moment to wonder WHY their child was not obeying? Instead of assuming that the child was just not listening, what if the parent had first looked for the reason for disobedience? Maybe then they would not have made their child cry.” But the parent is usually in too much of a hurry to notice the reason their child is not obeying.
In this week’s parsha, Balaam is also in a hurry. Balak, the king who this parsha is named after, has ordered the prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. After some initial hesitance, Balaam saddles up his donkey and goes to meet Balak.
But on the way, Balaam’s donkey suddenly turns and steps off of the road! Balaam tells the donkey to get back on track. He even beats the donkey, but the donkey does not obey. Three times, the donkey stops, and three times, Balaam beats the donkey for its disobedience and orders it to keep going.
And then – a miracle occurs. G-d “opens the donkey’s mouth,” granting it the ability to speak. The donkey says, “What have I done to you, to make you beat me like this?” And Balaam says, “You have humiliated me! If I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you!”
And the donkey replies – “Am I not your donkey? In all the times you’ve ridden me, have I ever done something like this before?”
And Balaam admits, “No, you’ve never done this to me before.” And the moment Balaam acknowledges that the donkey’s behavior is unusual, he can suddenly see that there is an angel standing in the middle of the road, and the angel is holding a sword! The donkey stopped because it didn’t want to run into the angel and risk hurting itself or Balaam!
But like the child in the stroller, the donkey could not explain itself, at least not until G-d “opened its mouth.” And like the parents pushing the stroller, Balaam did not notice that the donkey had a good reason to disobey. He assumed that the donkey was just being difficult. If Balaam had taken the time to think about it – if he had responded not with anger and stubborn repetition, but by assuming that there must be a reason for his donkey’s unusual disobedience, perhaps he could have noticed the angel sooner and avoided hurting his loyal animal.
But what fascinates me about this parsha is that after this scene, Balaam becomes the donkey! No, he doesn’t literally transform into an animal, but he steps into the donkey’s role in the story.
Balak orders Balaam to curse the Israelites, and Balaam replies that he can’t do it if G-d tells him not to. But Balak is a king! He’s used to people doing what he tells them to! So, three times, Balak tells Balaam to curse the Israelites and not bless them. And, three times, Balaam blesses the Israelites instead.
Balak doesn’t understand why Balaam is disobeying him, and so he repeatedly tells Balaam to curse the Israelites, which only leads to more blessings for the Israelites, including Ma Tovu, which will remain an essential blessing for the Jewish people to this day.
Balak cannot get what he wants by demanding it over and over again, because he hasn’t stopped to think about WHY he isn’t getting what he wants. Like the child held tight by their seatbelt, Balaam is held tight by G-d’s instructions. And if Balak had taken the time to realize this, instead of angrily repeating his orders, perhaps the Israelites would not have gotten so many blessings on that day.
Luckily for the Israelites, Balak does not learn his lesson until it is too late. But we can still learn from Balak, Balaam, and the donkey.
What can we learn from the donkey’s example? There may come a time when someone in a position of authority over you, like a king, or your boss, tells you to do something, but you see something wrong with what they’ve told you to do. You might see the harm standing in the way, like the angel with a sword, or you might hear your conscience in your ear, like the voice of G-d, telling you to disobey your orders. When this happens, you can and should do what is RIGHT, even if it makes the authority figure angry. We all like to be helpful and agreeable, but disobedience can be a virtue.
What can we learn from Balak’s example? There may come a time when you are in a position of authority over someone else, like your child, or your employee, and you will expect them to do what they tell you, but instead, they will disobey. When this happens, take a moment and think about WHY. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Assume that there is a reason behind their disobedience. It might turn out that you need to change your own behavior to get what you want.
And finally, what can we learn from Balaam’s example? We learn that when someone disobeys us, we should not react with anger. When Balaam’s donkey steps off the road, it’s trying to be helpful, and it doesn’t understand why Balaam beats it. This moment is what made me think of the crying child stuck in their stroller, unable to obey their parent, and equally unable to understand why their parent is shouting at them. This parsha contains a powerful reminder that when we react to disobedience with anger, we can accidentally hurt the people we care about and who care about us, too.
If we want to avoid accidentally hurting people, we must look at disobedience not just as misbehavior, but as something that is done for a reason. Once we find that reason, then we can all walk forward together.
Be good to yourself; be kind to each other. I’ll be back next week with more thoughts!
What grocery store do you shop at the most?
Kaufland, because it’s just around the corner. I want to start going to those zero waste shops, though.
Which stovetop burner do you use the most?
Bottom right, always.
Do you use a dishwasher or wash dishes by hand?
I have a dishwasher now, thank goodness. I didn’t have one throughout my uni days and got by fine without it, but now I’m glad I can just put everything in there.
What color is your favorite laundry basket?
I only have a black one with flowery prints on it.
What color was your first car?
Never had a car.
What was your first job?
Working in consignment/dispatch.
What is the best job you’ve had?
My current one - it’s also my first job where I’m on a permanent contract and have a ton of benefits I didn’t have at any of my former jobs.
What is the best pharmacy near you?
I actually haven’t been to any of the pharmacies in this area since moving here in September, oops.
Do you use public transportation?
Yes. Not as much these days because of covid and stuff, but I live in a city with pretty good public transportation.
Which bank do you use?
An online bank that no one knows.
Do you have a credit card?
What is your favorite fast food restaurant?
I hardly ever go to fast food restaurants anymore.
What do you want to name your kids?
I don’t want kids.
How many tattoos do you have?
None, yet. I hope I will have one at some point in the near future when tattoo studios are allowed to open again.
What year did you graduate high school?
What chore do you hate the most?
Cleaning the bathroom, ugh.
What is your favorite shampoo to use?
I don’t have an overall favourite.
How do you remove stains from clothes?
Depends on what type of stain it is?
Do you carry pepper spray?
What highway do you drive on the most?
Well, I don’t drive regularly.
Do you like driving?
I don’t do it often, and I suppose that’s part of why I find it stressful.
What is your favorite radio station?
I don’t remember the last time I listened to the radio.
What do you use for an alarm clock (phone, stereo, actual clock, etc.)?
Which department store do you shop at the most?
I don’t shop at any regularly.
Which dollar store is your favorite?
I never go to the German equivalent of a dollar store, but when I still lived in England I loved Poundland because they had all my favourite things on sale.
Do you shop at the dollar store often?
What is your favorite gas station?
As I hardly ever drive, I have no opinion on gas stations.
Do you burn candles often?
How do you relax?
I don’t, really. Well I try to, but never seem to get to that point.
What’s your favorite app on your phone?
Spotify, Instagram, Komoot.
What do you cook the most?
Pasta and veggie stir fry.
When was the last time you relaxed in a hot bath?
A couple of weeks ago or so.
Do you take showers or baths normally?
What is your favorite candle scent?
I love the vanilla candles from Ikea.
How much does it cost for you to laundry (if you use a slot machine)?
I haven’t had to do that since uni.
Do you make your bed every day?
On most days.
Do you have any pets?
Do you have kids?
Are you married?
Far from it.
Do you save receipts?
Sometimes, when I feel like they might be useful.
Do you use re-usable bags at the grocery store?
I usually bring my own bag.
What color is your carpet?
The carpet flooring in my flat is cream.
Have you ever burnt yourself with the glue gun?
I don’t think I’ve ever even used a glue gun. > I don’t think I have either, but that was something I was so afraid of happening when I was a child haha.
Do you write checks?
I’ve never written a check in my life. It’s not a common method of payment here at all.
Ever had a garage sale?
Nope. We don’t have garage sales here, but I love flea markets and vintage/second hand shops.
What have been some of your best garage sale finds?
^ My camouflage jacket and some of my dresses.
What time do you wake up in the morning?
Between 6:30 and 7am on most days.
Are you a morning person?
Are you more of a morning person now than you used to be?
Eh. I suppose working full-time made me adjust to it better.
Do you like to read?
I do. Though I started reading this book 2 weeks ago and I’m not even halfway through it.
What was the first election you voted in?
European parliament in 2014.
Who is on speed dial in your phone?
I don’t think I’ve ever used speed dial.
Do you play games on your phone?
What phone do you have?
Sony Xperia X-something.
What was your first phone?
A really old Siemens phone that still had a black and white display.
What kind of computer do you have?
Wall calendar or desk calendar?
If you read a daily devotional, which one are you using currently?
What is your favorite book?
It’s kind of a funny story by Ned Vizzini.
What is the strangest food you’ve had?
Some of the vegetarian alternatives to meat that I’ve tried were pretty strange.
What do you do when the power goes out?
I’ve never experienced a power cut that lasted longer than a few hours, thank goodness.
Does your home have a basement?
How often do you clean?
How often do you go grocery shopping?
It varies, but usually once or twice a week. I don’t really do big shops.
Ever bought a lottery ticket?
Do you gamble?
No, because I know I’d be bad at it.
What does your purse look like?
It’s just plain black.
Do you ever sleep on the floor?
Which room do you stay in the most?
What is your bedtime?
I don’t have one. I try to get about 7 hours of sleep on work nights, though.
Ever worked two jobs or more at once?
Do you live in an apartment, condo, house, or dorm?
What does your dream house look like?
I honestly don’t fantasise about owning a house because I might never get to experience that.
Describe your dream wedding.
Idk if I even want to get married.
How often do you go on vacation?
Well that obviously varies. I travelled a lot more when I was a student, and now I could afford to go on more holidays but I suppose I don’t need to explain why I’m not going anywhere now hah.
What is your favorite type of weather?
Warm and sunny.
What do you do when you have a sore throat?
Use cough drops, drink lots of water and herbal tea and eat ice cream.
How often do you go see a doctor?
Just when I absolutely have to. I try to go to my annual dentist check-up every year, though.
Do you have acid reflux?
Do you snore?
I don’t think so and I’ve never been told I do.
Are you on birth control?
What kind of toothpaste do you use?
Some kind of Colgate.
Do you wear glasses or contacts?
Nope. I haven’t had any issues with my eyesight...yet.
How often do you wear make-up?
Whenever I’m working or have other plans to go somewhere.
Do you put on make-up in the bathroom or the bedroom?
Do you have a swimming pool?
What is the first site you go to when you turn on your computer?
Which email service do you use?
Web.de and Outlook.
How often do you check your email?
Several times throughout the day. My work email is always on sync except for when I’m off.
How old were you when you got your first phone?
What was your favorite boy band back in the 90’s?
I was too young to be into boy bands during the 90′s. I’ve always liked N*Sync and Backstreet Boys, though.
Did you own a Britney Spears album?
I sure did.
i don’t even know what to say about gaim. i really don’t. that’s not gonna stop me from making a post about it but like. what. under a cut bc i’m writing a novel over here.
okay my first thought is that i still really enjoyed most of gaim. i don’t think the ending took that away from me mostly because the last five episodes or so made me check out so hard and so fast it literally felt like watching a different show. even then there were still a few good character moments in the end that i’m glad i watched, especially from jonouchi, oren, and takatora who are all big faves.
the last episode i’m so so so torn on bc i still like the idea of ending it at 46 with a little less certainty but there is something undeniably There about ending with hope. if i had to wager a guess at the theme of gaim, i think that would be it. hope, despite the absolute fucking worst that comes at you (and it was the worst! it was the worst.). and not just hope but this concept of carrying on, of everything continuing and evolving, just maybe not in the way you expected or planned. i do like that.
i 100% get and agree with the madoka comparisons. like gaim started out being something and the last few episodes were just beat for beat madoka. tell another story please mr urobuchi you were almost there.
actually i think the thing that’s sticking in my head the most is micchy which is surprising me. i want to talk about micchy so bad but idk what i even want to say about him. i still feel like he was missing something somewhere and he did some undoubtedly heinous things but i do still feel sympathy for him and i was happy to see him have a chance to live with what he did. i feel like i should unpack that in some way but idek how to start.
i didn’t mind mai being the golden apple necessarily until it started getting into what that entailed. i think that the concept of putting it in someone else is fine on its own, but the execution. no ma’am. what’s especially disappointing is, because of the nature of time travel stuff, this was one beat that was planned from the start. disappointing.
i wish kaito had been something. i really do. i feel like he had such a clear path set up at the beginning and then the writers just did nothing good with it. maybe i’m just biased bc i love him dearly and i was waiting for that one last baby step into full villain decay redemption arc and it never came. they kind of gave it to micchy instead which is. wild. bc micchy did way worse things for way longer than kaito did. kaito was really just a villain for the dancing part at the beginning, then moved into more morally ambiguous, and they had such a good thread with him and mai and his connection to zawame and then they slam dunked it in the trash. like i was really expecting him to end up as an “i want to be strong to reverse what the previously strong have done to this city that i love” kind of character. not fully a selfless protector like kouta, but someone who was willing to do awful things to put zawame right again, and maybe burn himself out in the process. they allllllmost got there, but instead he went full wacko and decided to do a genocide instead, then had his 30th consecutive lost fight and died. seriously kaito gets the shit kicked out of him in almost every fight which is SO funny considering he’s the strength guy. another example of these kind of weird character choices that don’t quite click for me.
also i still stand by kaito/mai WAS cute and WOULD HAVE BEEN cute had they not done. y’know. that with it. like why take the time to build up those interactions if you’re just gonna force the issue to no end in the finale.
uhhh lemme just run down the list now actually. oren good. jonouchi good. takatora good. no complaints with their character arcs honestly they were fun the whole time. ryoma lived and died exactly as he should have and was a delight the entire time. sid and yoko just got so fucking boring i truly did not care when they died. dj sagara rules. i don’t even think i fully get his deal, i just love whatever the fuck he’s doing. wild man. zack living was one of the only good things that happened in the last few eps. peko is also very cute idk i haven’t talked about them much but they’re cool dudes. the rest of team gaim is also there idk i have no strong feelings about them either way.
oh also the fact that the very last episode was based around a movie i did Not watch certainly didn’t earn it any points, but again i did like the character moments and i liked the tone of the episode so i’ll forgive it i guess. certainly not the worst thing gaim has done to me.
last thing i think and then i’m gonna go eat dinner which i didn’t do in favor of finishing gaim first: yuuya’s appearance and kouta’s first man appearance have to be linked in some way right. something about the hair especially just really struck me idk it seems like a parallel but i’m not smart enough to string it together coherently.