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Whom did you call ”an ass”?

Balaam’s talking jenny is not only the clairvoyant individual that the non-Hebrew prophet – some demote him to a mere sorcerer — the antihero of this weekly Balak Torah portion, was supposed to be. She does not only save his life thrice by dodging a would-be catastrophic physical crash with an angel of God had she obeyed Balaam’s desired route. Having been struck by the clueless Balaam who is miffed by his jenny’s swerving from the path that he wanted her to take, the jenny innocently and politely asks her master why he hit her, following Balaam’s third striking. The fact that he answers his jenny (albeit offensively) as a matter of course without being astounded by her ability to speak (and in… Hebrew to boot) attests to Balaam’s own understanding that donkeys aren’t the ‘’jackasses’’ that contemporary stereotyping opted to associate them derisively with being stupid, annoying, or even detestable animals.

image.png                        The foremost authentic image of the ass in the Torah is evidenced in Jacob’s deathbed messages where he refers twice to donkeys in his foremost central blessing to Judah, whom he resembles first to a lion and then to a donkey that is tethered to a grapevine to symbolize the lucrative business of pricey wine that Jacob prophesies for Judah; wealth which the donkey would facilitate for the future pre-eminent tribe.

And it is the same animal that Jacob invokes anew in his subsequent blessing to another son, Issachar, whom he resembles to a strong donkey that besides enabling for a thriving agriculture symbolizes, according to traditional commentaries, spiritual flourishing in Torah learning as well. Indeed, for the Rabbis the donkey is a paragon of true learners of Torah by carrying considerable weight in a consistently slow pace as it does not run. Hence, by associating him with a donkey Jacob sees in Issachar a wise student who carries on his back the heavy weight of Torah learning; such a wise scholar was not judged by fast and original brilliancy but by faithful daily learning, line by line, and page by page after the pattern of a donkey.

Jacob must have grown up with the story where his grandfather Abraham took his own father, Isaac, and ‘’the donkey’’ to Mt. Moriah for a rendezvous with God in what will be known as the Binding (or “Sacrifice”) of Isaac. The narrator of this episode could have easily done away with any of the two references to Abraham’s donkey in this unique episode without impacting a nary the succinct story; yet “the donkey” is a player here to be reckoned with; an animal that is honored by being a witness to a mega event of the Bible.

The favorable image of the donkey receives another booster even before the Israelite Exodus from Egypt when the Hebrews are instructed to dedicate to God the first-born animals they possess, besides their first-born sons. Such dedication was meant to recall the Tenth Plague slaying of all male first-born in Egypt, human and animal alike, which skipped over the Hebrews’ households. In the case of livestock, the Torah singles out the first-born donkey on two accounts.  First, it is the only impure animal with a first-born status, or in need of being consecrated to God.

Additionally, it is the donkey alone among all other farm animals that may be redeemed from being slain either by the sacrifice of a lamb, or when the owner gives a priest its value in money.  In such a case the status of the ass is comparable to the status of the first-born sons in Israel who are also “redeemed” by their father (from their consecrated duty to serve as priests in a future tabernacle or temple) when he presents a priest with five pieces of silver, or an object of equal value. Indeed, the need to consecrate both the animal and the human unto God is mentioned in the Torah in one short breath. No doubt, the donkey has a respected status in the life of the Israelite nation.

And it is the donkey and the ox that are the only animals mentioned in the Decalogue.  In the Deuteronomic version both animals are mentioned even in one breath with a person’s wife, (as well as his male servant and his slave girl), as likely animals to be obsessively desired by others; an act that is categorically forbidden even in one’s mere thoughts.   The Decalogue lumps together both animals with humans who also work on the agricultural farm for their Israelite master or employer, i.e., the slave and the alien sojourner. It thus instructs that they must rest from laboring on the Seventh Day, the Sabbath, even as the farmer himself and his children do.

Another foundational precept reads: “If you see the donkey of your nemesis sprawling helplessly under its burden, but you refrain from raising him, you must nevertheless help raise it” (Exodus 23:5). In other words, the suffering of the donkey is an essential concern that supersedes a person’s antagonistic sentiments against the animal’s owner; the innocent animal must be helped by alleviating its crushing weight at once without any hesitation.  This precept is reminiscent of another law in the Torah whereby neither a parent nor a child should suffer punitive consequences because of foul actions committed by the other. From this basic case the Torah will henceforth apply its principles to all other livestock animals who are in a similar adverse circumstance.   And it is because animals like the ox and the ass must not be muzzled while laboring in a field, so as to enable them and nibble at the agricultural produce while doing their work, that Jewish law moved to permit human laborers to earn their right to eat of whatever comes to hand from the ripened and unharvested crop, just like the donkey (and the ox).

The story of young Saul’s coronation as the first king of Israel is intertwined with his going to search out for his father Kish’s two lost jennies.  Though the family was of a high socio-economic status Kish, nonetheless, wanted to find them. On the third day of Saul’s journey — these valuable animals warranted the long search, even when his bread ran out – Saul went to consult in ‘’the man of God’’ (Samuel) on the whereabouts of the animals, and even gift him with his last coin (‘’the fourth part of a shekel of silver’’), as a token pay for his help.  Before he anoints Saul as a royal ruler, the Seer Samuel brings up the matter of the asses informing Saul that they were already found, so Saul could dedicate his full attention now to his imminent royal status and the tasks ahead. Traditional commentaries point out to God’s role in the asses’ going astray – albeit a common and pervasive occurrence – with God devising to bring Saul to Samuel, so the latter would coronate the former as the first king of Israel.

We reach, however, the apex of praises to the donkey in Zechariah who describes the messianic king who will enter Jerusalem “riding on an ass, even on a colt the foal of an ass”. The anointed first and the very last kings of Israel (Saul and a Davidic scion respectively) are thus accompanied by donkeys. Why, the donkey is essentially a symbol of peace, unlike the horse that connotes war, albeit not by a natural proclivity but because of human coercion.  The simplicity of the donkey fits Isaiah’s portrayal of the ultimate Davidic king as “contrite and [of a] humble spirit”.  Indeed, even his donkey would not be of an impressive size or strength, but a mere foal born to one of the asses; both man and animal are to share the attributes of modesty sans swagger or loutishness.

We have thus seen how the biblical image of the donkey is a far cry from its contemporary stereotype that relegates foolhardiness and imprudent obstinacy to the animal. The moniker “donkey” or “ass” constitutes, indeed, a generic verbal vituperative punching bag, e.g., “dumbass”, or “asinine”. Such a bias is not supported by the Bible, as is evidenced, for instance, in the Balaam and his jenny; the gist of that story might be extracted to its essential core with the urging: “Don’t call a dumb person “an ass”. To do so would be a Bible-based error. Rather, call him “Balaam”. Indeed, it is Balaam who is not only saved thrice by his eagle-eyed jenny, which repeatedly avoids collisions with an angel of God, even as Balaam is clueless about what the ass did for him, thus proving that she, and not him, was a true discerning and a far-sighted animal.  This episode reflects the biblical reality when the donkey was considered to be a highly esteemed individual.

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.
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