“Hello, It’s Gd Calling. Can You Hear Me?”
When was the last time you heard Gd speaking to you? If your answer is, “Never,” or that it’s been a long time, perhaps it’s because you didn’t get where the message was coming from. Let me explain with the story of today’s parsha as seen through the eyes of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin (Balak 7/11/98).
Today’s parsha is called Balak, after the king of Moav, who sought to destroy the Jewish people. Balak had a problem. He saw that the Children of Israel had destroyed more powerful nations than his—like the Amorites—and so he decided to try a more unconventional, non-militaristic approach. Everyone knew that the Children of Israel were Gd’s people and so, he thought, a more spiritual path of destruction might be more effective. Perhaps his big mistake was thinking that he needed to destroy the Jews to protect his people. They weren’t threatening him at all. The Jews only destroyed those other peoples because they were attacked by them. Nevertheless, he sends for the greatest prophet in the non-Jewish world, Bilaam, to curse the Jewish people in order to weaken them.
But Bilaam refuses to come. Balak offers him gold and silver and other riches and honors, and finally, Bilaam succumbs to the temptation and heads out for the long journey to Moav. On the way, Bilaam’s donkey behaves erratically—veering off the road on one occasion, banging Bilaam’s leg into a wall on another and then just laying down on a 3rd. Each time Bilaam angrily beats it with his staff. Gd then opened the mouth of the donkey who said: “What have I done to you that you have struck me these 3 times?”
The Torah (Num. 22:31) then tells us, “Gd opened the eyes of Bilaam and he saw an angel of Gd standing on the road with his sword drawn in his hand.” The donkey had seen Gd’s angel standing in the way each time and reacted accordingly. It was Gd’s way of chastising Bilaam lest he plan to curse the nation most blessed by Gd.
Bilaam’s response to seeing Gd’s angel was simple, Chatati, “I have sinned.” It marks the turning point in the story and from then on Bilaam—to the chagrin of Balak—rises to poetic heights praising the Children of Israel—a praise so wonderful that it begins the prayer service in our Siddur: Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov, mishk’notecha Yisrael (How goodly are your tents O Jacob, your tabernacles, O Israel). Most significant of all, however, is that Bilaam the prophet is brought to his divine visions by the message of a donkey!
It’s fascinating that the Talmud (Avot 5:8) lists the miracle of the speaking donkey as one of the 10 things created at dusk immediately preceding the Sabbath of the 7 days of creation. We are being taught that in the very blueprint of creation Gd made room for this particular “donkey’s mouth” whose voice would be heard not only by Bilaam but to reverberate throughout the generations saying, “No Gentile leader will be allowed to ultimately curse and destroy the Children of Israel!”
But why did Gd choose such an unseemly messenger—a donkey—to convey this message? Clearly the mouth of this donkey—emanating from the very dawn of creation—demonstrates how Gd’s words can reach us from the most unexpected sources. And what is important is not only that a donkey can communicate Gd’s will, but also that each person must develop the ability to hear, to discern in the harsh guttural hee-haws the message that was being sent to him. Gd’s words may be found in the most unlikely of places and we must have the necessary spiritual antennae to receive them.
Rashi seems to echo this principle in his explanation of the verse immediately following the 10 Commandments (Deut. 5:19) where the Torah tells us: “These words Gd spoke unto all your assembly out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice, v’lo yasaf, which did not stop.” Rashi explains: “Gd did not have to pause when speaking like human beings…because His voice is strong and goes on forever.” How does Gd’s voice go on forever? It means that the sound waves released at Sinai are continually and eternally present in the world; we must attune our ears to be sensitive receptors of Gd’s message.
Let me read you a story told about the Chassidic master, Reb Zusha, who during one of his journeys, came upon a peasant whose wagon had turned over:
Asked to help, Reb Zusha—no longer young and feeling himself too weak to struggle with an overburdened wagon—demurred, saying: “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”
“You can,” said the peasant to Reb Zusha, “You just don’t want to.”
The peasant’s words sank into the very core of Reb Zusha’s being, resonating with a message from Above, as if the Shechina herself was admonishing Reb Zusha for saying, ‘I can’t.’ “You can,” he heard the Shechina saying, “You just don’t want to.”
Reb Zusha was able to accept the truth of the peasant’s words on more than one level. How often do we say, “We can’t,” when what we really mean is, “We won’t,” “We do not wish to”? And here, in this world, our Temple is destroyed, the Divine Presence has fallen, and we don’t lift her (the Shechina) up. And although it’s because we say we cannot, the real reason is because we don’t want to!
Herein lies the essence of the famous teaching in Ethics of the Fathers (4:1): “Ben Zoma says, who is wise? He who learns from everyone.” If Reb Zusha could learn a major principle regarding our relationship to Gd from the simple words of a Gentile peasant…if Bilaam could learn his mission from a donkey, we must always be on guard to sensitize our ears and our hearts to receive Gd’s message from—whomever!
Rabbi Meir, in the Talmud continued to study with his teacher, Elisha be Avuya, who lost his faith and became an apostate. How could he continue to learn from someone who no longer believed in Gd? The Talmud (Chagiga 15b) answers that a truly great person has the ability and sensitivity to hear Gd’s words even from the lowliest of places. Hence Rabbi Meir heard it from Elisha ben Avuya, Zusha heard it from a Gentile peasant, and Bilaam heard it from a donkey!
I began by asking you, when was the last time you heard Gd speaking to you? If your answer was, “Never,” or that it’s been a long time, perhaps it’s because you didn’t get where the message was coming from. In his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides points out that on Mt. Sinai every Jew heard Gd’s voice, but each person heard only what he was capable of hearing. The Gd-waves from Sinai—as Rashi taught us—never stops. They can be accessed everywhere in the world at any time—even from the most unseemly messenger. The question is: are we prepared to receive them? They say to each and every one of us: “Hello, it’s Gd calling. Can you hear me?” Amen!