In these days of terrible heat and climatic changes, pressures, of war situations (Ukraine, Syria, on the borders of Israel and so many other places)… we may feel a sort of natural compassion for animals. Jerusalem is full of cats, some are so lucky to have a permanent residence near one, two, or more restaurants and coffee shops, while others sniff around as good street NFA pets where they might get some nice bones or grains. In Ukraine, Georgia in Caucasus, hundreds of people have set-up special associations to save the animals that are deeply in danger.
During summertime, it is a real mitzvah (a good deed) to feed homeless animals. It is nice to see pieces of bread along the way – inside the Old City – but also in many other places. Spontaneous groups or individuals do gather for an informal catering system. They allow the pigeons, other birds, or dogs to get even fresh meat. The good deed may apparently not be based on a real reference to the life-giving Mitzvot.
In the Old City, the Christian spirit might firstly consider it is just normal to feed animals. Then, it somehow tracks back to Jesus’ remark: “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them… not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them.” (Matthew 6:25-34). With regards to the Jewish part, it is normal to be kind to animals and the commandment that prohibits tearing a limb from a living animal shows a high respect for the life of all animals.
There can be a lot of personal fondness emotional frustration, and loneliness involved in such behaviors that lead crowds of people to be far too kind toward animals and quite suspicious toward their human brothers and sisters, if any….
I often heard when listening to some of these small groups how the Shoah background was present in terms of the absence of care, humanity and just being given simple basic food. At the top of the present show, we note the wide development of these high and longhair puddles or greyhounds if not some huskies. That’s quite a real acculturating process that lines with the general aliyah movement! I know a Chinese dog from Russia that only eats rice and really developed a ghetto spirit: totally scared by any cat or mouse when he pays a visit to its colleague pet friends in the Armenian Quarter.
Local animals are donkeys and camels. Camels show for short tours for children and reckless grownups. The tour is frankly a “come and go” style. It even disappeared from Jaffa Gate but is still present on the Mount of Olives. You get up and down the camel, smile at the beast, and walk a few meters, and bye… But camels are sweet and cute: they store liters of water to quench their thirst.
We don’t have vultures… maybe safer! Well, at least not in town, but in the surrounding wilderness regions, there are many of different species. It is fascinating to track their route from the Horn of Africa and South Yemen to the Sinai up to Arabia, Jordan, and The Negev. At times they leave up to the North till Scandinavia! and they come back. In the East, the vultures swallow the corpses as people can follow their appetite on the top of the Mazdean/Zoroastrian towers of death in Mumbai.
The Jewish tradition has always praised the people who take care of creatures: Jews should remember that they are a nation of shepherds and flock caretakers. David was the last and forgotten son gone somewhere to graze the lambs and ewes… He was the right one to reign as a king. Rebekkah-Rivka is the model of the nice girl who gave water to Eliezer’s camels. This was a good sign to become Itzchak’s wife. Jews should be, by nature, “rachamim bney HaRachamimרחמים/ בני הרחמים – compassionate as they are the children of the Merciful God” (Beitzah 32b).
The Jewish ethics towards animals are definitely clear in this verse: “The righteous respect the life (nefesh/נפש) of his beasts” (Proverbs 12:10). Still, the Talmud accounts how some famous Sages could be rude to their beasts, e.g. Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi who is blamed for not having shown compassion towards a calf. Curiously, it is more humane to respect a calf that will be slaughtered than to put down insightful verses of the Mishnah.
This question of taking good care of animals is at the heart of reading portion “Balak” in the Book of Bemidbar-במדבר/Numbers 22:2-25:9. This Gan Eden atmosphere of wonderful deers and gazelles combining charming swiftness and tenderness, love and perfect beauty plus wisdom is fundamental in the process of a correct reflection.
To begin with, a nasty deal that tried to commit an idolatrous God-fearing magician called Balaam with Balak, son of Zippor. The Moabites were alarmed that the people who had left Egypt had completely defeated the Amorites and were heading towards Moab. Thus, the best way was to consult an expert in divine affairs and to curse the Israelites so that they would either perish or be done before even trying to fight Balak.
Let’s say that there was a sort of wide range of gods and goddesses, deities who could either put a spell, a curse, or a blessing on our brothers/sisters, parentage, or tribe but imperatively on our enemies. This is our major life activity: how can we curse others without harming ourselves (too much)? Balak just behaved accordingly: he sent the elders of Moab to contact a good professional “magushמגוש – magician”. Because these elders were themselves versed in “ksamim be yadam/ קסמים בידם – diviners, charmers having divination at hand”. “He began to make divinations by throwing arrows and sundry objects” as said in Eycha Rabba 1 which states that a charmer makes use of carved or chipped objects (קסם/qessem).
We use the word in Modern Hebrew to say that a person is “cute”, which does imply that s/he is chipped up or cut down. This is also linked to the present use of the word “icon” as we love to have “cult characters” at the present. As a usual paradox in the Jewish tradition, it is also said: “He who makes himself a carver, i.e. a skillful worker in the words of the Law shall finally become a leader through them” (Sanhedrin 9, 6).
Old Norse “Spjáll” – English: “to spell out = explain step by step” had initially this aspect of “carving” that is strictly forbidden by God’s Commandments. There is no possibility to bewitch or to attract people by enchantment in the monotheistic tradition. This cannot be reduced to some jokes.
It is evident that persuasion plays that game of “carving fascination” in our daily lives.
This consists of hexing, and exercising witchcraft and at this stage, there is a strong connection between Balak’s attitude and our ways of living and acting in the present. Let’s go on and consider the way we parade all the time with our egos; when millions of teens and “immature” adults change and enhance their trademark look on the net. Specific sites allow them to sell their images features, and contact abilities. We can charm or catch the attention via photoshopping or Instagram. It apparently allows overcoming a damned boring loneliness. Images that are supposed to reflect Divine resemblance turn more and more into idolatrous memories and “icons” that are disconnected from true respect for human existence. It is a risky situation, not a final point but very misleading.
We may become aware of how we progressively frame ourselves into this carving of self-idolatry, maybe driven by some irresistible pulsions. There is a constant motto and rallying war cry on the web: “This is not true – you/we/people fake, lie or hide who and what they are”.
Balaam is a diviner. He is not a believer in the One God. But he listened to God’s voice and refused to be paid and he cursed the Israelites. This is meaningful because of the above quotation from Talmud Sanhedrin 9, 6: A carver instructed in the Laws’ word will become a leader, at least a true man of God. At this point, Balak sent more distinguished dignitaries who would richly reward Balaam. Again there is a heart-to-heart talk between God and Balaam who confesses to the Lord and refuses house, silver, and gold.
Then God put a sort of test (not to say a charm). “You may go with these men. But whatever I command you, that you shall do, said the Lord” (Num. 22:20). There is a subtle move to which we are pretty much accustomed as “individual souls”. God told Balaam to do what He would tell him to do. Is Balaam the wicked diviner described throughout the Tradition? In particular, when some so-called scholars, insist on describing Balaam as lining up with Jesus. It basically allows a sort of irrational and long-term dispute with and against Christianity and vice versa.
Faith in the One God never relies, by no means, on splitting or conflicting twisting textual irrelevant interpretations. This concerns all beliefs, but in particular, the dramatic history that affected the relationships between Judaism and Christendom.
It is very difficult not to put love – i.e. pure love – on sale just the same way as when a flat, a car, or a cupboard is put on sale, or simple objects when there is nothing left. Just a full disappearance of true trust in Providence. The problem with Balaam is to know whether he was vainglorious (Rashi). Or, maybe he “could and shall not disobey God’s will” (Chumash and Targum Onkelos).
It should be noted that Balaam is commonly considered a diviner. There is no specific reason to accuse him of being “vainglorious” or “seduced and attracted by wealth” which is in contradiction with the Canticle: “If a man offers all his wealth for the love he would be laughed to scorn/despised to the maximum – בוז יזוזו לו” (Shir 8:7).
Balaam had an ass, a she-donkey. During the 23rd Egyptian Dynasty (749-21) it was normal to write such legal statements as: “If you don’t agree with that decree, may a donkey copulate with you”. We are often totally antiquities-style in our search to be trendy…
Interestingly, God grew angry when He saw that Balaam was joining Balak’s emissaries. He placed two defenders: His angel standing in the way with a sword and the she-donkey/aton – אתון. It can make sense, especially according to the Semitic traditions, that the root is somehow linked to “atnan/אתנן = the pay of a whore, a prostitute”. Lowliness can give better advice and suggestions that by nature would first be rejected as nonsense or nil.
Now, would you trust your favorite pet and take him/her as your counselor? Pets can bite some foreigners in between, but would your domesticated animal tell you who you really are?
On the one hand, Balaam had the angel of God and he was beating the poor she-donkey who stubbornly did not want to move. Then the Lord opened the “aton’s” mouth: She said: “Why have you beaten me three times?” Balaam admitted the donkey had always served him correctly. The Lord unveiled Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel; thus he bowed down with his nostrils to the ground (“Vayikod vayishtachu le’apav -ויקד וישתחו לאפיו”, Numbers 22:31).
The fascinating part of the episode is the revolving attitude of the faithful diviner. He did know God and listened to Him. He was ordered to go with God’s enemies in order to curse Israel. And thus, God protected him as his best friend the aton/she-donkey did. “Atonאתון” is a special word. In Daniel 3:11 it is stated: “Whoever will not fall down and worship (the statue of gold) shall be thrown into a burning fiery furnace (lego-atun nuraלגא=אתון נורא)”. In this prophetic verse against idolatry, the word symbolically refers to God’s anger before redemption.
Numerous quotations link Balaam, as a negative personality, to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It may be far more interesting to open other ways. Balaam is the pagan diviner who recognized the living God and bowed totally down (Ps. 95:6). God and his she-donkey switched his tongue from cursing to blessing to such an extent that till nowadays when entering a synagogue, the Jews say: “How fair are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings Israel!” (Num. 24:5).
Judaism always relies on and complies with the words of converted pagans and this is a major aspect of the Jewish faith (cf. Jonah, Ruth). The three Magi that came from the East to see the newborn child Jesus in Bethlehem also refused to bow down before Herod and did not tell him where the child was lying, which shows a real connection with the Tradition (Matthew 2:1-12).
Finally, God shows animals as instruments of redemption, true faith, or apostasy. Balaam had beaten his donkey three times without being aware of the good she was calling upon him. The first-morning blessing praises the “sechviשכוי – rooster, cock – but also conscience!” to have the capacity to distinguish night from day. When Jesus is judged, Peter-Kaiapha is sitting a bit aside near the fire. Jesus had told him: “This very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times… He went out and began to weep bitterly” (Matthew 26:75).
Where do we have she-donkeys or roosters to wake us to the day and praise life as the Creator? They preceded us in the account of creation and do accompany us all throughout our lives. As new creation comes up, we have a huge and magnificent task, joy: we have the mitzvah commandment to bless, and bless continuously with respect, care, loving-kindness, and love so far.