May 29, 2024
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Balak: Bilam’s Blues

It was the same story in every town they visited. Bilam had been a big star in Midian before his encounter with Balak. He had received the royal treatment everywhere he went. He got to sit on the choice rock at the oasis. He always got the best palm tree under which to rest. People treated him like a celebrity, bowing in his presence or kissing his hand. “There goes Hashem’s prophet,” they would say. His counsel was much valued. They would bring out their children for him to bless. It had been great.

Since the whole Balak thing (what people in Midian were calling “Moavgate”), everything had changed. People still pointed at him when he went by, but now they weren’t smiling or waving. They were whispering. “Our ally asks for a curse on Israel and gets a blessing instead,” “Traitor,” “Bumbling fool.” He had heard it all. And now they placed him in the back of the oasis, far from the lush vegetation and the watering hole. Celebrity was so fickle.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

Now, wherever he went, people wanted to see her. Talk to her. Pet her. She had become a serious liability. Let’s face it, a talking donkey is a wonder to behold when she is protecting you from an angry angel with a sword, but after the confrontation is over, she just kind of cramps your style.

Bilam rode into the town of Ushka on his trusted donkey (Ushka: the county seat of the Glinkpa Province of Midian, famous for its grapes, idols and rock formations).

“Are we there yet?” the donkey asked.

Bilam sighed. “Almost.”

“Good, I’m so hungry I could eat a horse, if you’ll pardon the expression.”

Bilam rolled his eyes. The donkey had saved his life, so he had to put up with her bad puns. Bilam knew that the donkey was one of God’s unique designs—some even say she had come into being during the first week of creation, at the very beginning—but she was really becoming a pain in the… neck.

Bilam entered the town square. At first there was no reaction, but after a few minutes, the children came running out, followed by the adults.

“Hello, donkey,” they would say, completely ignoring him. Sometimes the donkey would speak, much to the pleasure of the crowd. Other times she would remain silent, in deference to Bilam, but she would still flash her big, toothy grin for the audience. They loved that.

It was hard to go from famous celebrity to straight man to a donkey. Bilam tried to contain his bitterness. He knew that this was all part of punishment from God for resisting His will and going with Balak and his advisers. Bilam had sought fame and fortune by defying his Creator, and now he had neither. Sometimes it seemed like more than he could bare. Sometimes he wished the donkey hadn’t saved him and had allowed the angel to strike him down.

As a prophet of God, Bilam could see that the donkey’s future was bright. She would live a long, happy life, filled with water, hay and increasing renown. In the generations to come, while Bilam would vanish from the greater consciousness of the world, writers would compose books filled with talking animals. And Bilam could even see a future of motion pictures filled with talking donkeys, even though he had no notion of what a motion picture was.

“You know, donkey,” Bilam said as he hitched her to a post in the town square of Ushka, “your brave deed will live on forever, and you will be discussed by great scholars throughout eternity. Whereas I will lead a short, unhappy life and vanish from the world completely. If my name is ever brought up, it will be as an example of a selfish fool and a man who chats with animals.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the donkey said. “I think you’re a great man, worthy of respect and loyalty.”

Bilam smiled and petted his donkey on the head. You couldn’t help but like her.

Bilam wanted to discuss so much more with his trusted donkey. He wanted to rail at fate. He wanted to prophesize for the ages. But he held his tongue. For when all is said and done, although the donkey was good company while they were on the road, her intellectual capacities were limited. For although the donkey was one of God’s greatest miracles, when it really came down to it, she was still a jackass.

Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.

 

By Larry Stiefel

Bamidbar: 22: 28

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