Parashat Balak 5766/ July 8, 2006
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
What Balaam Learned from his Ass
Prof. David Henschke
Department of Talmud
The actions taken by Balaam’s ass, and why this episode was included in the story of Balaam in the first place, are without doubt the main difficulties in this fascinating reading. Two primary questions are evoked by the story: After the Lord explicitly permitted Balaam to go (“you may go with them” [Num. ]), what justification is there for G-d to be “incensed at his going” (Num. )? Second, the story of the ass in no way advances the plot, since at the end the angel repeats exactly what the Lord had said to Balaam prior to his departure, and Balaam continues on his way; so what rhyme or reason was there to insert this wondrous and exceptional story? 
The answer apparently lies in something which had happened earlier in the story, for at the outset the Lord said unequivocally, “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed” (Num. ). Once Balak’s emissaries had returned and come again, what reason was there for Balaam to delay them, saying, “let me find out what else the Lord may say to me” (Num. )? What reason did he have for thinking that this time the Lord’s answer would be any different? It has been noted by Franz Rosenzweig that the word yosef, in the sense of adding further, is a leading word in the story,  but what is its significance? As we shall yet see, this word encapsulates Balaam’s entire religious outlook.
For Balaam was unequalled in his fear of G-d; he did not violate the Lord’s word even in the least detail. However, this was truly a matter of fear and nothing more: according to his view, the Lord was nothing but an arbitrary force, with no bearing on the values of good and evil. This was a pagan view of the Holy One, blessed be He: a supreme G-d who rules over all, but whose dominion is arbitrary, lacking any moral direction. Since the commands of such a G-d are not founded in moral values, there is no reason to expect them to be consistent: here we are dealing with an arbitrary exercise of dominion by a supreme power that one day says one thing, but the next day might just as well say quite something else. This was Balaam’s basic belief, underpinning his religious outlook.
The command, “Do not go with them.
You must not curse the people” (Num. ), Balaam understood full
well: the voice speaking was a
power that could not be contravened.
But the moral reason (“for they are blessed”), gave the prohibition a
force of constancy that was beyond Balaam’s comprehension.
Therefore, Balaam’s interpretation
was: do not go with them, for that
is what I decree at the moment – and nothing more.
Indeed, that is what Balaam
reported: “The Lord will not let
me go with you” (Num. ).
It is not, in Balaam’s perception, that
He refused to let him curse the people “for they are blessed”; rather, He
refused to let him go as an arbitrary refusal; but as to the future, anything
was possible. Indeed, the officials
Now we can understand Balaam’s response to the second delegation: “Stay here... and let me find out what else [Heb. yosef] the Lord may say to me” (Num. ). True, the previous time the Lord refused; but this refusal has no moral foundation and is simply an arbitrary decision that might be reversed no less arbitrarily. “What else the Lord may say” – for His will is not constant.
In responding, “you may go with them. But whatever I command you, that you shall do” (Num. ), of course the Lord remained firm in His opinion, since His prohibition against cursing the people remained in force. Balaam, however, interpreted this response according to his way of thinking: the previous day he had been told “do not go with them” (Num. 22:12), but now he was told “you may go with them”: indeed, here were arbitrarily oscillating responses; just as the prohibition against going turned into permission to go, so too, in his view, the prohibition against cursing them might be changed. Therefore Balaam set off, thus expressing his perception of G-d as entirely arbitrary. Naturally G-d was incensed.
So now an angel was sent to teach Balaam what divine arbitrariness is. The angel stood with his sword drawn, and the ass turned away from him time after time. Here, too, the key word recurs: “Once more [Heb. va-yosef] the angel of the Lord moved forward and stationed himself upon a spot so narrow...” (Num. 22:26), just as the Lord spoke once more, and Balak sent emissaries once more, so the angel once more obstructed the way. As is to be expected, Balaam took the behavior of his ass to be typically arbitrary: “Balaam was furious and beat the ass” (Num. ). Balaam was furious at the ass for what to him appeared to be its arbitrary behavior in refusing to go; this parallels what was said earlier: “G-d was incensed at his going” (Num.22:22) – the Lord’s wrath was at Balaam’s going, which itself also expressed the arbitrary behavior that Balaam attributed to the Lord.
Therefore Balaam struck his ass, and then “he beat her again [Heb. va-yosef]” (Num. , and finally the ass opened her mouth and appealed to Balaam with a moral claim: “What have I done to you that you have beaten me” (Num. )? The ass’s morality is contrasted with Balaam’s arbitrariness. He attempted, however, to justify himself: “You have made a mockery of me” (Num. 22:29), again revealing his view of the world: all is arbitrary – just as Balaam wished to curse an entire people who had done him no wrong, and just as the Lord one day permitted what he had forbidden the day before, so the ass was making a mockery of him for no reason. Therefore the ass answered, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?” Now we can understand the meaning of the conversation – the ass was arguing: is all indeed arbitrary? Is there no such thing as loyalty and morality? As far as the ass was concerned, she never tried “once more,” she never abused anyone or acted arbitrarily, rather she followed the straight and narrow path of faithfulness, “all along until this day.” Just as it did not suffice simply to accept the edict, “do not go with them,” rather, one also had to understand the accompanying moral reason for that edict, so too, Balaam ought to have checked out whether the behavior of his faithful ass had a good reason behind it.
This explains the ass’s behavior, setting off one world against the other. Balaam was deeply imbued in a world of arbitrariness; for him that was the key to explaining the behavior of G-d, as well as his own behavior, and even the behavior of his ass. They all tried “once more” or “again,” because anything might change; for them the world was not directed by morality, but rather by blind arbitrariness. The Torah chooses a symbol of arbitrary animal behavior in order to underscore the contrast with Balaam, seeking to enlighten Balaam’s benighted world through behavior of an animal, of all things. For one moment, in a flash of illumination, everything becomes flooded with moral understanding: it is precisely the creature epitomizing animalistic behavior that becomes enlightened, sees the angel, opens her mouth, voices moral demands, and emphasizes the opposite of arbitrariness, namely faithful devotion. But Balaam, the “clairvoyant,” is blind to this illumined world; he knows his own path, the way of charms and magic, only in a world were everything is arbitrary.
When the angel repeats to Balaam the moral argument made by the ass, “Why have you beaten your ass these three times?” (Num. ), his response is, “I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back” (Num. ) – an answer not to the point. The angel spoke of how Balaam had morally wronged his ass, and Balaam answered with respect to the question of whether or not he should go to Balak. Balaam was incapable of understanding the moral world, and so the conclusion he drew from the event followed his way of understanding: the presence of the angel in his way indicated another reversal, typical of the arbitrariness of the deity, again forbidding what had previously been permitted. Thus Balaam perceived the wondrous scene as actually substantiating his own approach – here was the Lord, changing His opinion again, except that this time Balak “did not know,” he had not been told, so his wrongdoing lay only in the fact that he, a magician who supposedly knew the will of the Almighty, this time did not know. Henceforth all was clear to him: at first he had been forbidden to go, then he was permitted, now he was again being forbidden, and some time in the future he would again be permitted: “If you still disapprove [lit. now if you disapprove], I will turn back” (Num. ).
This brings us to the denouement: “Go with the men. But you must say nothing except what I tell you” (Num. ). After such wondrous things had occurred, we are returned right back to the starting-point of the story, thus remarkably sharpening the message that from Balaam’s point of view nothing had happened. The flash of moral enlightenment that shone for a moment in the darkness of arbitrary existence did not shine for him; remaining blind, he returned to his way. At least until, to his own great amazement, he heard the words that issued from his very mouth, contradicting all his teachings: “G-d is not man to be capricious, or mortal to change His mind. Would He speak and not act, promise and not fulfill?!” (Num. 23:19).
example, cf. Abarbanel’s questions regarding this week’s reading, questions 8,
19. Classical biblical criticism
seized on the discordant incorporation of the story of the ass in order to
smash the story to smithereens, claiming that the entire Balaam episode is
constructed of a tapestry woven from a variety of
“sources,” including the story of the ass
itself. A. Rofé, however, has shown
quite persuasively that this approach is unfounded:
the narrative as a whole is unified and
harmonious, but even in his opinion the story of the ass does not fit in; cf.
his work, Sefer Balaam,
 F. Rosenzweig, Be-Sod ha-Tzurah shel Sippurei ha-Mikra, trans. Y. Amir, in Rosenzweig, Naharayim – Mivhar Ketavim, Jerusalem 1978, pp. 15-16.