The message of the donkey

In Parshat Balak, Bilam is commanded by Balak, the king of Moav to curse B’nai Yisrael. Although the Torah does not waste words, Bilam’s means of transportation which he is hoping will quickly get to his destination is described at length in Bamdbar 22:21-27:

Bilam arose in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went with the Moavite dignitaries. God showed anger because he went, and an angel of God placed himself in the way to thwart him, as he was riding on his donkey accompanied by his two attendants. The donkey saw the angel of God standing in the way with his sword drawn in his hand; the donkey turned aside from the way and went into the field; Bilam struck the donkey to get it back on the way…When the donkey saw the angel of God, she was pressed against the wall and pressed Bilam’s foot against the wall; and he struck her even more…When the donkey saw the angel of God, it crouched beneath Bilam; Bilam became angry and beat the donkey with a stick.

Bamidbar 22:28-30 recounts the conversation that Bilam had with his donkey:

God opened the mouth of the donkey and she said to Bilam: “What have I done to you that you have hit me these three times?” Bilam said to the donkey: “Because you have ridiculed me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you now.” The donkey replied to Bilam: “Am I not the very same donkey that you have been riding on all your life until this very day? Was it ever my habit to do this to you?” And he said: “No.”

Finally, Bilam saw the angel of God and in verses 32-33, the angel of God said to him: “Why did you hit your donkey these three times? Behold, I came out to obstruct you, because your way is contrary to me. And when the donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times; had she not turned aside before me as she did now I would surely have killed you and I would have let her live.”

Dr. Rachel Reich points out ten stories in Tanach where the donkey is mentioned: Avraham getting ready for the Akeda, the Binding of Isaac (Breisheet 22:3), Moshe on the way to Egypt with Tzipora and their two sons (Shmot 4:20), Bilam heading over to curse B’nai Yisrael (Bamidbar 22:21), the Levi going to retrieve his concubine who ends up getting abused in Givah (Shoftim 19:28), Avigail rushing to try to appease King David (Shmuel I 25:20), Achitophel’s last journey before he ends up committing suicide (Shmuel II 17:23),  Mephiboshet’s plans to ride the donkey but Ziba the servant doesn’t help him (Shmuel II 19:27), Shimi hurrying to get his slaves back, despite his oath that he would not leave Jerusalem (Melachim I 2:40), The sons of the false prophet saddling the donkey so that their father could pursue the man of God (Melachim I 13:13), The Shunamite woman dashing to see Elisha to beg him to revive her child (Melachim II 4:24).

In each of these stories, the person riding on the donkey is trying to fulfill a mission with a sense of urgency and each time things don’t turn out as expected.

Of course, there are many other stories in Tanach where they must have rode on a donkey (that was their main form of transportation), yet it is not specifically mentioned when Avraham and his family traveled to the Land of C’naan or when they went down to Egypt.

In the stories where the donkey was explicitly mentioned, each protagonist was on a mission but in the end God had His own ideas and the operation did not usually turn out as expected. Avraham did not sacrifice Yitzchak even though he thought that he would be expected to, Tzipra and her family didn’t end up going to Egypt, rather they went back to Midian, Bilam blessed B’nai Yisrael instead of cursing them and the list goes on…

We can see from here that we can try our best to do what we can, but at the end of the day, God will decide what the final outcome will be.

About the Author
Sharona holds a BA in Judaic Studies from Stern College and an MS in Jewish Education from Azrieli Graduate School, Yeshiva University. Sharona was the first Congregational Intern and Madricha Ruchanit at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, NY. After making aliya in 2004, Sharona founded Torat Reva Yerushalayim, a non profit organization based in Jerusalem which provides Torah study groups for students of all ages and backgrounds.
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