Then the Eternal opened the donkey’s mouth, and said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” And he answered, “No.”
In this passage from this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Balak, Balaam — on a mission to a distant place — cannot see what his donkey sees: a deathly angel on the road in front of them, its sword drawn. The donkey, protecting them both, refuses to move, and Balaam, in his frustration, beats the animal.
The above verses, beginning when God makes it possible for the beaten donkey to cry out in speech, offer essential spiritual and interpersonal wisdom for us, inviting us to ask ourselves several important questions.
First, for those who are frightened of people in power, for those who have been beaten down by circumstances or by the negligent or immoral use of power, who have been harmed —physically, spiritually, sexually, economically or religiously harmed: What does it mean for God to open our mouths?
Second, an essential part of the Exodus narrative of slavery and liberation is that God hears the cries of “bnei Yisrael” (the Israelite nation). That act of opening our mouths to cry out — to name and lament what is wrong — is the first step toward transformation. What does it take for each of us to let God in enough that we can allow our mouths to be opened?
Third, why does it take three times before the donkey’s mouth is opened? Thinking of the human experience of crying out, often we get louder with each cry; as with the shofar, we do not reach the “t’kiyah g’dolah” — the grand elongated note — without sounding the shorter cries before. Sometimes, we can endure indignities, but then we hit our limit — the need to cry out wells up inside of us and we have no choice but to speak, first quietly, then louder and louder until we are heard.
Fourth, in dialogue, listening is as important as speaking. Here, there is a back and forth between the donkey and Balaam. Three times, the donkey stops abruptly and Balaam’s journey is disrupted; three times, Balaam retaliates. Given that the donkey had been loyal and never before given Balaam any difficulty, how might the story have been different if Balaam leaned forward with curiosity: “Until now, we’ve had a good relationship. Why are you doing this?”
Finally, it is only when the donkey impeaches Balaam and clearly states his credibility — you know me, we’ve worked together, we have a relationship, why on earth would I sabotage you willingly? — that the dynamic shifts. And in that moment, the value of trust is illuminated. How often do we react to colleagues and fellow community members — even family members — with an ethic of suspicion, dismissing all we have come to know about them?
Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the emotions of a moment, in our reflexive reactions to another person’s behavior, that we forget the relationship we have with them. We become suspicious and angry, and then spin into a cycle of recrimination and mistrust.
But it need not be that way.
If we keep our relationships at the forefront of our minds as we work and live in the world, if we pause purposefully and recognize the incongruity of someone’s behavior with the person we know and with whom have a relationship, we can potentially transform conflictual moments from causing lasting — even irreparable — damage to strengthening our connectedness with each other.
What might a different path have looked like here in our story? Let’s reimagine the dialogue:
After the donkey threw Balaam, he sat on the dusty road for a moment, puzzled. He paused, taking in the vast desert horizon. He looked at his donkey, and with tears in his eyes, wondered aloud, “We’ve been together for years. I’ve raised you. We know each other. This is unlike you to act this way. What’s wrong?”
And in that moment of empathy and understanding, God opened the mouth of the donkey: “Thank you. I would never hurt you. I had no words to describe what I saw. But I feared for you because of it. And this was all I was capable of …”
“Thank you,” Balaam replied, understanding and contrite.
And the two walked on the path, together.
Michael Adam Latz is senior rabbi at Shir Tikvah in Minneapolis.