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Inviting curiosity

What you do and don’t get mad about. Paying attention to this can tell somebody a lot about you. On a first date, for example, the way you react to a rude waiter may be more telling than any causes you espouse or anything else you have to say. Indeed, you can even learn more about yourself, when, after the anger recedes, you consider why something made you as mad as it did.

But what if there were extenuating circumstances? What if you’re mood’s been soured or your patience has been tested by unrelated factors? Moreover, what if even you aren’t aware of what’s put you on edge?

This week’s portion of Torah brings helpful originality to this predicament. The setting involves a talking donkey who proves capable of bringing its irate rider to a place of curiosity. That’s right, curiosity. That splendid setting wherein surprises gently introduce themselves.

Here’s the scene. The foreign prophet Bilaam grows furious with his donkey for his erratic behavior. First, swerving off the road, the animal then presses the prophet’s foot against a wall. Finally he sits down, refusing to proceed. After the prophet strikes and threatens to slay the donkey, the animal opens its mouth to ask, “I’ve been your trusted companion for years. Am I in the habit of this kind of behavior?” The verse doesn’t conclude without a response. The prophet pauses, then says, “No, actually” (Num.22:30). Discovery follows. The prophet’s eyes are opened to learn that his donkey has been reacting to a menacing messenger of God, holding a drawn sword. God’s messenger now has Bilaam’s rapt attention, as he gives the prophet revised instructions.

Beyond the irony that an animal can see what a prophet cannot, lies something even more profound. The human being resorts to brute force, while the animal adroitly invites curiosity.

Next time you’re upset that somebody isn’t reacting strongly enough to worrisome developments, instead of screaming, Don’t you see? Or, Why aren’t you more upset? Consider inviting curiosity. Ask your friend to consider, “Is this normal conduct for me?” This may invite them to pause and recognize, “No, actually it’s not.” Their posture may shift to make them interested in obtaining information they lack.

It hardly accidental that the Torah locates this lesson within the particular emotion of anger. We’re least interested in learning when we’re furious.

May the confidence that there is more going on that meets the eye, surpass any mistaken overconfidence that we possess all the relevant information. And may curiosity arrive at the scene when it’s needed most.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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