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Naomi Graetz

Travels and Transitions: Parshat Hukat and Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9)

TRAVELS AND TRAVAILS

This is the last week that the Diaspora and Israel are reading different portions. In Israel we are reading parshat Balak and in the rest of the world they are reading both Hukkat AND Balak. Next week they catch up. Since my children and grandchildren are embarking on travels in the wide western world, this is also a period of transitions for our family. The first to leave was my grandson to serve as a counselor in Camp Ramah. The next is his father, my son, who is taking on a position as a rabbi in California. After him will be my youngest daughter, her partner and my youngest granddaughter who will go to Mexico via Portugal, then on to Los Angeles and then back to Israel. My oldest daughter will be travelling intermittently with her family once her middle son gets out of the army. It seems as if our entire family is in transition: high school graduations; pre-army programs; leaving army; another granddaughter going to the U.S. with my son. We are staying behind, travelling vicariously, via zoom, WhatsApp, and videos.

Like Israelis today, the people of biblical Israel are also engaged in non-stop travel: They are in the wilderness of Zin, staying at Kadesh, and then moving on to Mount Hor, which borders Edom. Then they go via the Sea of Reeds to avoid the traffic in Edom. From there they go to Avot, which borders Moab and then continue travelling all the way through Transjordan.  No hotels or Airbnb for them! Miriam dies during this time, in a brief mention, almost unnoticed. No obituary for her!  “The people stayed at Kadesh, Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1). There is no mourning for her! “Coincidentally”, right after her death it is stated that the people did not have any water, which led the midrashists to assign a miraculous well to Miriam which was one of 10 things created at the beginning of time (here). So, accordingly it was natural that when she died the water supply ran out. Also perhaps her calming influence is missed, for as expected, when the Israelites complain about the lack of water Moses loses his temper, by hitting the rock with his rod (instead of speaking to it). God is so angry that he tells Moses he will not be leading the people into the land of Canaan. Then Moses is told to take Aaron up to Mount Hor and strip Aaron of his priestly clothing and put the holy vestments on his son Eleazar. There Aaron will die in the eyes of all the people. This time, unlike with the death of Miriam, the people mourn him for 30 days.

Moses is now on his own, no sister or brother to consult with, or to help him lead the troublesome nation and he knows too well that he will die before they enter Canaan. He is depressed; he sees the end. At this point one could expect trouble, but God is with the people and against great odds they succeed in their battle engagements against various peoples.

While the people are encamped east of Moab opposite Jericho (Numbers 22:1) we have the strange insertion of parshat Balak. Balak who is King of Moab hires Balaam, a famous gentile prophet to curse the Israelite nation, whom Balak perceives as a threat. Unfortunately for King Balak, Balaam, who is as authentic a prophet as can be, is also God fearing, and despite the reward he might expect from the king if he succeeds in cursing Israel, cannot do so, because God puts stumbling blocks in his path.

The story begins with Balam getting up early in the morning and putting the saddle on his donkey (just like Abraham). Except his donkey is a female (an ass)!  And this talking ass too, just like Miriam’s well, was created by God in the last hours of creation, according to the midrash (here). I think it is very significant that the author of this text describes the animal as female:

When he arose in the morning, Balaam saddled his ass and departed with the Moabite dignitaries. But God was incensed at his going; so, an angel of the Lord placed himself in his way as an adversary. He was riding on his she-ass, with his two servants alongside, when the ass caught sight of the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. The ass swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass to turn her back onto the road. The angel of the Lord then stationed himself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. The ass, seeing the angel of the Lord, pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the ass now saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.  Then the Lord opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”  Then the Lord uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. The angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for the errand is obnoxious to me. And when the ass saw me, she shied away because of me those three times. If she had not shied away from me, you are the one I should have killed, while sparing her.” Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.” But the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you” (Numbers 22:21-35).

Before going on, note that just like Moses, who beats the rock with his staff (mateh) (an inanimate object) when he is angry with the people, Balaam beats his faithful female beast with a stick (makel) out of frustration. Just like Moses, Balaam cannot control his donkey, and takes out his frustration by losing his temper. The donkey speaks to him with words, not sticks. Moses used his staff in a similar manner and shouts at the people “listen you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” He then strikes the rock twice with his rod (not three times like Balaam). But instead of telling the rock with words (dibartem el ha-selah) to give up water, Moses hits it. Moses is punished for his lack of faith in God and Balaam is rebuked first by the donkey and then by the angel of God for not trusting the faithful donkey’s instincts.

Most commentators overlook the fact that the ass is female. The sages in the Talmud picked up on this: Mar Zutra said: “He would divine using his phallus.” Mar the son of Ravina said: “He had intercourse with his donkey” (b. Sanhedrin 105a).

The artist Susie Lubell, depicts the female donkey in a pink dress standing up on two feet, walking with balaam (here). Both the Talmud and Lubell imply a marital relationship between Balaam and his ass. In that case Balaam is a not only a wife beater, but a habitual one, for he beats her three times!! This is a serious charge! Is such a man worthy of being a prophet? Balaam comes across as a bully in the way he treats his female beast of burden. She has been faithful to him all these years, yet he holds her responsible for pressing him against the wall, rather than trust her for having her reasons for doing so. She herself says in anger when he says he would have killed her for disobedience: “I’ve been your faithful animal all these years, have I ever misled you?” At this point Balaam realizes that she is right and God uncovers Balaam’s eyes. He then sees that his faithful animal/wife was trying to protect him from the drawn sword of the angel. The angel says it is YOU I would have killed had she not protected you. But rather than apologize to the animal, he goes on his way. It’s not clear if the ass goes on with him, or if she is left behind, leaving us to imagine what will happen to her.

However, since the donkey is clearly female, one could argue that since women are often depicted as beasts of burden, we have a case of early wife abuse. The ass has in common traits like Manoach’s unnamed wife, who sees an angel, when her husband does not see him. The use of a female beast as a vehicle of transportation at this particular point in the bible, is significant. Her complaints are reminiscent of Moses’s complaints, who is burdened by the people of Israel:

And Moses heard the people of every family wailing, every man at the entrance of his tent, and the Lord’s became exceedingly angry, and Moses’s eyes was troubled. And Moses asked the Lord, “Why have You brought this trouble on Your servant, and what have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all these people, did I give birth to them, that You should tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land that You swore to their fathers? Where can I get meat to give to all this people when they weep to me, saying, ‘Give us meat to eat’? I alone cannot carry these people, for the burden is too heavy for me. If this is how you are going to treat me, kill me right away–if I have found favor in Your eyes, do not let me face my evil fate” (Numbers 11:10-15).

Moses is feminized here; he sounds like a female caretaker, using birthing and nursing metaphors to depict his plight. When the going is too hard for him, he is ready to bow out and suggests that God kill him. In contrast, Balaam, strikes his faithful she-ass who is trying to protect him and when he understands that he is helpless in the face of God’s demands that he bless the people and not curse them, he comes out with amazing poetry. When Moses was starting out, God appeared to him at the burning bush; he saw and understood the mission, even though it took him time and he refused; but eventually he was convinced, especially when God told him Aaron would be his spokesperson. But now Aaron is gone, he is alone. And along comes this prophet, Balaam, who has visions, who is a see-er, a prophet. Whereas Moses sees the burden, curses his fate and even the people, Balaam, in his oracles, remains positive about Israel.

Many of his words are well known in the liturgy.  Balaam sees the potential of this people and paints perhaps an overly optimistic picture when he lifts his eyes and sees the tents of Israel and says the well-known words which we recite daily in the shaharit service (here ):

ma tovu ohalecha Ya-akov mishkenotecha Israel 

How goodly are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel (Numbers 24:5).

After his final words, he goes back to his people on the long journey back home. And then after all this he goes on his way (Numbers 24:25). In the non-Jewish tradition, this is the end of the story in chapter 24. At least we should expect something grand after this amazing declaration of faith in God and vision of Israel’s potential by a foreign prophet to end the parsha.

CHAPTER 25

Instead, perhaps ironically, the people revert to their old habits with a vengeance. And God will not accept this. Chapter 25 is included in our parsha and so we have a story in which the same people who are gloriously depicted as being God-worshippers, profane themselves, and are unfaithful, literally whoring with foreign women. Moses is ineffectual in acting against the two sinners who are brazenly copulating in front of the god, Baal-Peor. He, together with the rest of the nation witness this and cry in despair, yet does nothing.  It is his grandnephew, Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of the priest Aaron, who sees what is happening who takes violent action against the couple.

An act of violence is what saves the people from the the plague which has already taken the lives of 24,000 people. The contrast between the pastoralist vision of Balaam and the reality faced by Moses is evident. Moses is overwhelmed by the burden. It is time for the next generation to take action. I would hope that the takeaway message from this is not that we need to choose between the violence of the Pinchases of the world vs. the pastoral visions of Balaam.  Yet the juxtaposition of this episode with the prophecies of Balaam is jarring. I never quite understood why our tradition juxtaposed this incident with the message of Balaam. Is it to undercut his vision, because this prophet is not one of ours? Eventually, the bible puts the blame on him for instigating what happened here, but that will be later (Numbers 31:16). Stay tuned!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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