By Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs
It should not surprise us that Balaam’s animal that saves his life is a female. How consistent this is with the theme that it is often the female in the Bible who guides, instructs, or shapes the events surrounding the clueless male.
Beginning with Eve, women like Rebecca, Tamar, the six women of the Exodus (whom I discuss in a web essay you can find at www.rabbifuchs.com), Samson’s un-named mother, Hannah, Ruth, Vashti and Esther are much more savvy than their male counterparts.
But there is more.
Balaam was a world-class sorcerer. The Sages claim that Balaam communicated directly with the Almighty (B. Zevahim 116A) and that, in terms of his brilliance, he was the gentile equivalent of Moses (Bemidbar Rabbah 14:20). And yet in the story, Balaam is totally oblivious to the presence of God’s messenger while his animal sees the angel clearly. Wow!
When we think of dumb animals, asses are the metaphor! They don’t come dumber than that. And yet the ass gets it and Balaam, the smartest man alive, is clueless!
What does that teach us? There is something we can learn from everyone! Never look down on anyone!
I first learned this lesson – very painfully – in the sixth grade. Back then, I was pretty okay in basic school subjects, such as reading, English and history. I was even okay at math and, I say proudly, I was the best speller in the class. To be honest, I looked down on those students who had trouble grasping these subjects.
Then I had shop.
I was the worst. It took me forever to finish my first project and before I painted my “magnificent” dog doorstop I went to the teacher, Mr. L. A. Molinari for instructions on the final steps. He told me what to do, but I was confused and so I asked him to please go over it again. Mr. Molinari snapped at me in anger, saying, “You weren’t listening! You’re through for the day!” And I had to sit–fighting back tears – doing nothing for the rest of the period at my workbench while the rest of the guys continued their work.
I get it now.
In shop I was the dummy. Mr. Molinari pegged me as a slacker even though all I wanted was to be sure to do the right thing. In the meantime all of those guys (only boys took shop back then) who were not as good in English and spelling could work me under the table in shop.
What a vital lesson that has been for me in my career as a rabbi! As my former ice hockey coach, Gilbert F. Adams puts it: “We’re all dumb differently!”
We all have strengths and weaknesses. In the story of Balaam the ass, dumbest of animals, was able to help the smartest person in the world see the light.
What does this story teach you and me?
Rabbi Simeon ben Zoma said it best: “Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone!” (Pirke Avot 4:1)
To that I would humbly add: And the one who does not look down on anyone!
Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs is author of What’s in It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. He is the former president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in West Hartford. His website is www.rabbifuchs.com.