Perashat Balak: Becoming-Mule

Perashat Balak stands as a unique narrative segment in the Torah. For the first time, we are given a narrative episode which is entirely not experienced by the Israelites; what in the entertainment world might be called a “behind the scenes” presentation, or to use contemporary film theory terminology, we are “sutured in” from an entirely different vantage point, outside of the usual concern with the Exodus. It can be assumed that if the Torah had not told us this story, no one would have ever known it, as it all takes place outside the horizon of the participants of the Exodus.

A quick glance at the way this narrative is presented reveals a preponderance of visual terminology. Again and again terms dealing with sight are used, even down to the description of the Israelite masses as covering “eyn haaretz”, the “eye of the land”. The Daat Moshe (son of the Magid of Kozhnitz, and an important thinker in his own right) suggests that even the name of the king of Moab, protagonist of our tale, Balak ben Zippor, reflects this, as the word “zippor” is akin to the aramaic “tzafra nahir”, inferring a certain type of clarity, as of daylight. I will thus propose that our text is trying to emphasize lessons in how to “see”.

But first, a few textual points. Even if the Torah felt it necessary to give an historical perspective on how the surrounding tribal peoples responded to the emergence of the Israelites on the scene, and even if the resulting positive spin of Bilaam’s blessings are worth preserving, why tell us the odd story of the talking mule? The text never finds it important to present, for example, the rituals or political structures during the period of slavery in Egypt, so why do we need to know the details of Bilaam’s escapades? This type of story seems more reminiscent of those odd Midrashim that attempt to fill in gaps in the narrative, as in the details of Moshe’s adventures in Midian, etc. So what is this episode, and particularly the talking donkey segment, attempting to teach us?

The medieval commentators can be roughly grouped around two general approaches to this question. One, with a strong basis in the Midrashim, is to derisively compare Bilaam with Moshe as leadership paradigms. The other, similar in structure, found in the Ibn Ezra, Abravanel, and others, is to teach us “who created speech in man”, that is, that the ultimate source of the communication is Gd. In other words, the source of the message, and how it is used or misused, is contrasted in the presentation of Bilaam vs. that of Moshe.

Where the medieval thinkers deal with the communication itself , the Hassidic thinkers deal with the challenge facing the individual in transmitting the message. The Beer Mayim Hayim , in a passage worthy of more extended study in terms of postmodern theory, points out that there can be no message without interpretation. There is no platonic absolute message there that occurred at the moment of transmission, not even a divine, prophetic message. The same prophetic word of Gd, as it were, will take on different literary form based on the personality of the individual who presents it. Thus, for example, the BMH explains, King Josiah, when needing a prophecy, sent for Hulda the prophetess rather than Jeremiah the prophet, because he felt that even a negative message from Gd would be softened if it was transferred via the more sympathetic Hulda, as opposed to the more petulant prophet of wrath Jeremiah. For this reason we see that Bilam, who intuited that Gd’s prophecy regarding the Israelites would contain a blessing, the opposite of his own personal wish, pushed hard to be the mouthpiece for the prophecy, knowing that even a positive message can be subverted by the way in which it would be uttered by him. To counter this, we are told in verse 5 that “Gd put the words in the mouth of Bilaam”, which the Talmud reads as not a usual transmission of speech, but as an exceptional case in that Gd placed either an angel or a bridle in his mouth (BT Sanhedrin 105:), suggesting a kind of forced, uninterpreted message, that is, removing this particular message from the grasp of human agency.

Following this line of thought, the Kedushat Levi explains that the presentation of the details of the talking donkey episode was meant to in itself deconstruct Bilaam’s thought processes. Bilaam is trying to go one way, and his animal insists on going a different way. What does Bilaam do? He whacks the animal. The animal, surprisingly, protests vocally, until the angel intercedes by revealing itself, leading to Bilaam’s comprehension of the situation. According to the Kedushat Levi, Bilaam should have come to infer from all of this weirdness, a self-understanding of his own failure in attempting to subvert Gd’s message. One would think that a prophet, whose job it is to transmit Gd’s word to the community, (much like any artist in any media who is trying to present some kind of novel vision), must be engaged with the world, must learn to become, to quote Henry James, “one upon whom nothing is wasted”. He or she must be in constant engagement with all that is transpiring in the world around, always observing, listening, always reformulating. How could a prophet not interpret an event as remarkable as this talking mule episode, as being in some ways relevant to his saga? How could one truly conscious read it in any other way than as a sign not to proceed with his plans? The donkey was, at the end of the day, the truer prophet, attempting to warn Bilaam against going on, but instead of being sensitive to this rather overt omen, Bilaam resorts to violence. I suggest, in this vein, that perhaps Bilaam might have read into his own violent response ,to a donkey, the futility of the use of violence. Perhaps Bilaam should have identified himself with the donkey, who veers off the path in order to avoid confronting the divine presence and as a result gets beaten, and understand in his own case that veering off the path and attempting to distort his prophecy would result ultimately in violence.

An extreme reading concerned with the means of transmission as critical to the message itself is that of R. Zadok Hacohen. The Zohar links the three “mouths” found in these perashiyot- the pi habe’er (“mouth of the well”), the pi ha’ aretz (“mouth of the earth” formed to swallow Korach and his gang), and the pi ha’aton (the talking donkey of our story here). R. Zadok explains that these three mouths represent three routes back to Gd, derived from three forms of transmission. The pi habe’er, the watery oasis, is representative of the Oral Law, the divine transmission that incorporates the need for mutual dialogue; Gd transmitted the law as text, the way that it is actualized in a living society is dependant upon the way in which the community chooses to “read”. The pi ha’aretz, the mouth of the earth created to swallow Korach, is a divine transmission which symbolizes punishment, a route which can awaken one to legitimate self-correction, even when evoked at the last moment; we are told that repentance would have been accepted even as the Korach co-conspirators were tumbling downwards through the abyss. The third type of divine transmission is that symbolized by the pi ha’aton, the donkey’s speech. This “speech” which derived from an agent normally without speech, implies that to every moment of consciousness, if only we were willing to listen, are given signals, which should we choose to interpret, would alter our lives in a dramatic fashion. No truth statement requires validation or legitimation beyond that which the subject chooses in the act of appropriation, then weaving it into their personal narrative. To quote the Peri Zaddik:

…the donkey’s speech teaches us that even in a situation where the speaker himself has no idea what he is transmitting, such as the donkey in our case, there is still truth to be found there…

From this approach, we understand the purpose of the speaking mule to Bilaam. However, we still do not understand the interest this episode has for the reader of the Torah. What lesson is meant to be transmitted to the reader by the episode of Bilaam’s donkey? I will propose a possible approach, derived from the specifics of the episode as it is presented in the text. Let us look at the conversation between Bilaam and his donkey. After Bilaam gets annoyed with his animal’s evasive maneuvers from the angel that has as yet revealed himself only to the donkey, the text relates that he whacks the poor animal with his staff. After this Gd opens the donkey’s mouth, but no brilliant penetrating discourse emerges- the donkey whines, “what did I do to you to deserve being beaten thrice?” Bilaam doesn’t act surprised, he simply answers the question and threatens his wonder-donkey. The animal continues to kvetch, “do I deserve this after so many years” and Bilaam responds, simply: “No”. Bilaam doesn’t jump with surprise and yell, “hey, what’s going on here, my animal is talking!” The lack of surprise here is noteworthy. As we learn in psychiatry rotations, surprise is an important clinical finding. How do I know that the schizophrenic calmly informing me in the emergency room, of how he was transported across the universe by alien bats from hell, isn’t telling the truth? If something that horrifying were to happen to a “normal” individual, one would guess that they would be in terrible shock. This is akin to Gregor Samsa’s non-response upon finding out that he had been transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin. He doesn’t spend any time aghast at this horrible violation of nature; he is more concerned with possibly getting fired from work. Yet, Kafka didn’t intend Gregor Samsa to be merely schizophrenic. There is a much wider social phenomena operative in the story, and I suggest that same deeper operation is present here as well.

What I am arguing is that presented here by the text is a descent by Bilaam into the realm of the animal, into “animality”. Bilaam and his animal have a “routine” conversation, man and domestic animal, because at this point they are at the same level of discourse, the level of “being animal”. What typifies this level of “being-animal”? George Battaile in the opening chapter of his Theory of Religion defines animality as immediacy and immanence, the paradigm of which is the situation of one animal eating another- there is no autonomy of one and dependence of the other, no yearning for revenge, no analysis of motivates, it is simply a response that occurs when a larger animal needs to eat and a smaller one is present for eating:

The apathy that the gaze of the animal expresses after the combat is the sign of an existence this is essentially on a level with the world in which it moves like water in water…

Perhaps we can characterize it in another way:

1. Animals don’t think of themselves historically. They do not make long term plans and do not look back at their past.

2. Social interactions among the animals are not geared towards transcendence. They do not yearn for enlightenment or higher spiritual achievement. They band together in some situations for food, but do not hesitate to kill one another en route to a female in heat.

Deleuze and Guattari interpret Freud’s Wolf man case study in terms of this kind of animality. They say it is not castration which the wolf man (as a child) was fearing when he imagined seeing all those wolves in his tree, as thought Freud; rather, it was a fear of “becoming animal”, of losing personal individuality and uniqueness and “becoming herd”. This animality is what Bilaam must experience before his encounter with the Israelite tribes, whose emergence from the animality of slavery into unique peoplehood, will serve in all of history to teach two unique responses to the continuing human threat of a descent back into animality. The two counter-animal phenomena are introduced into this episode by the Midrash, which notes the use of an odd phrase regarding the triple beating by Bilaam “three times”; instead of the more usual “peamim”, the term used is “shalosh regalim”, which can also mean “three legs” and “three festivals”. The Midrash explains that this phrase used here is meant to encapsulate just those two alternate meanings:

1. The “legs” upon which the community stands are the three forefathers of the people, Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov; and

2. the three major festivals the Jewish people celebrate, formerly accompanied by pilgrimage and gathering in Jerusalem.

Bilaam, and we the readers contemplating this odd text, are reminded of the purpose of human, social and Jewish existence. Human beings, as opposed to animals, have a history, implying beginnings and future goals. Humans ought congregate and interact not merely as herd, and should be engaged in mutual dialogue geared for the betterment of society and universal transcendence. The people Bilaam is about to encounter have broken away from the terror of animality, the cruelty of slavery, where human beings have their history and their dreams taken away, subject to an existence entirely in the immediacy of responding to another’ orders, the master’s untransformed desire. Perhaps in this context, the image the text presents of an angel with a sword blocking the animal’s path, is meant to parallel the image of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden as narrated in Genesis, another road blocked by a sword carrying angel, the expulsion from Eden representing (in the Rambam’s reading) the birth of subjectivity and un-transcendent desire. Mankind may in the course of history, descend to animality, but a path upward to enlightenment from this situation, to becoming human, is the message of the Exodus out of slavery and toward the “promised land”.

This also explains the purpose of presenting this “behind the scenes” story at this point in the text. These chapters making up the end of the book of Bamidbar and on through the Book of Devarim, mark the transition from the Exodus and the Desert experience to the next phase of Israelite experience, that of settling the land, as the Sefat Emet points out. Part of the process of becoming a free nation, is to rise above simply being a band of slaves running away from a bad situation, but a People, with a distinctive and meaningful social existence, with a past, and with a dream, a future critical to the unfolding of human history, as we shall see in Perashat Massei, to “see” a different future, no longer looking at existence with the apathetic gaze of the animal or that of some hopeless anomic Kafkaesque figure. Bilaam comes to recognize this attainment of the “becoming human”, as can be seen by the nature of his visions and blessings (with their emphasis upon issues such as the social arrangement of the people, as in the reading of “ma tovu oholecha Yaakov”, “how goodly are thy tents”), and so must we from time to time, especially in dark times where becoming-animal appears to be the order of the day.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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