Thank you everyone for checking us out. Today’s first post is a heavier one, but it was the best way for me to get this information out that was requested by TES Board members this week. For non-Board members, you should know that we try to open all of our meetings with a D’var, a commentary on either the Torah portion of the week, or on something else pertinent to our Sisterhood women. This past week our board meeting had a full agenda, so in the interest of time, I did not give my d’var. Many asked if I would share it though, so here it is. I PROMISE THAT FUTURE BLOGS WON’T BE THIS COMPLEX!! This was the best way I could share it with everyone AND test out our new system, so here it goes. I’ll make sure we have some fun things on here soon!— Jessica Chasen, Sisterhood President
This week’s parsha is Balak. You may remember it as the one with the talking donkey. Yes, that’s right – a TALKING DONKEY in our Torah! This portion always makes me wonder if some fan fiction fantasy writers got a hold of our Torah and inserted this chapter just to mess with us or to see if we were paying attention. (If you don’t know what fan fiction is, ask any teenager – it’s big in their lives.)
The portion begins with the Israelites making their way toward the Promised Land. Balak, the king of Moab, in a bid to stop them (probably out of fear they may conquer Moab), hires a prophet named Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam says no a few times, as he feels that this is not something the divine wants, and Balaam is a prophet who does connect with G-d (but is not an Israelite). But of course, pressure and promises of money/benefits wins out and Balaam agrees to take the job. While traveling on his trusted donkey, the donkey begins to act strangely. The donkey sees an angel with a sword standing in front of them on the path, so the donkey veers off course, understanding it is not to proceed. Balaam does not see the angel and its warning, so understands nothing about why the donkey is acting differently. This happens three times, with Balaam increasing in anger at the donkey, yelling at her, hitting her, and pressing her to stay on the path. Finally, the donkey opens her mouth and SPEAKS to Balaam, asking why he is treating her like this. Hasn’t she always been trustworthy, has she ever disobeyed him before? G-d has opened the she-ass’s mouth to allow these words to come through the donkey to Balaam, and finally the prophet’s eyes are opened. He sees the angel with the sword, apologizes to the angel for his behavior, and learns that the words that he will speak if he continues his path will be the words that G-d gives to him, and not the curses Balak sent him to give. As the portion progresses, Balaam provides three oracles which ultimately are blessings upon the Israelites. Most notable of them is one that endures as our Mah Tovu prayer – How fair are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel!” (The fourth oracle is more a curse upon those who sent him, than a blessing on the Israelites.)
But what about the donkey, the amazing creature that saw the angel and changed the course Balaam was set upon – what happened to her? Balaam apologized to G-d through the angel, but never apologizes to the donkey for beating her. This is a stark reminder of what abuse upon women can be like. Jarena Lee was the first African American woman to preach the gospel publicly, in the 19th century when slavery was legal in the U.S. and the right to vote was not yet available for women and African Americans. She said, it “may be a speaking woman is like an ass – but I can tell you one thing, the ass seen (sic) the angel when Balaam didn’t… [a female] beast of burden, subjected to physical abuse, the donkey…is the ultimate image of powerlessness in the social hierarchy.” This parsha, in giving the donkey a VOICE, transforms the power dynamic. The donkey does not use that voice to tell Balaam that she sees the angel with the sword blocking their path, she does not point out to Balaam what is right in front of him, but rather the donkey draws attention to his own wrongdoing, to the fact that he beat her even though she had always been loyal to him. It is a moment, much like the #MeToo Movement in which the behavior of someone who is powerful and well-known in the society is called out for the abusiveness that it truly is.
Disturbingly for me in this parsha is the mixed message given regarding Balaam’s behavior toward his she-ass. No sooner is Balaam yelled at by the angel for his abuse of the donkey, then he is given the honor by G-d of bestowing blessings on the Israelites. The story of the donkey is left hanging, we never know what really happens to her. It is obvious she receives no apology and we have no idea of her fate from this point on. Does she continue with them? Is she killed? Does she flee? We just don’t know because, as so often happens in situations, the victim of abuse is forgotten as concentration focuses on the powerful (often, as in this case) man and his story. As I said earlier, we in some ways honor the words that came from Balaam’s mouth every Shabbat, our most important holiday that we have the joy of celebrating every week, when we recite the Mah Tovu prayer. How do we reconcile ourselves with the fact that a known abuser also has given us something valuable? Do we focus only on the abuse aspect, and negate the good he has done? Do we dismiss the abuse and focus on the positive aspects he has put into the world? What do we do when we know both parts? How do we reconcile ourselves with the multiple aspects of the same man?
As I considered this parsha, I obviously came out with more questions than answers, but I believe they are important questions for everyone, and most specifically for us as Reform Jewish women who often look to find ways to support those in our community who may have been forgotten. Let us not lose sight of what victims think or feel, or assume we already know what they are experiencing. Just as G-d allowed the donkey to open its mouth and speak to Balaam, (most) victims are quite capable of speaking for themselves. All we need do is be open to listening to them.
The primary aspects of my D’var were taken from a wonderful D’var Torah and Davar Acher from the website www.ReformJudaism.org. If you are interested in reading Rabbi Lisa Grushcow’s D’var or Rabbi David Wirtschafter’s comments, please check out LEARNING WISDOM FROM A BEAST OF BURDEN in their Torah section. This is the link to that page if you wish to cut/paste it into your browser: