June 17, 2024
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Developing Dignity From the Dead Donkey

When Bilaam is riding out on his donkey to go curse Bnei Yisrael, an angel sent from Hashem attempts to put a halt to Bilaam’s plans. Only the donkey noticed the angel but not Bilaam, and multiple times Bilaam hit his donkey to continue journeying. The donkey miraculously spoke and began rebuking Bilaam, saying how much she has done for him and this is how he treats her, but Bilaam doesn’t own up to it. Finally, Hashem opened Bilaam’s eyes to be able to see the angel, and the angel said to Bilaam, “If not for the fact that your donkey turned aside before me, I would have killed you and spared her. [Rashi continues the rest of the angel’s speech]…but now that she rebuked you and you couldn’t withstand her rebuke, I killed her so that people don’t say, ‘That’s the donkey that “won” Bilaam through rebuking him and him not being able to answer.’” Rashi explains that we don’t want people saying this because “Hashem has pity on the dignity of people.”

We’re talking about Bilaam here. An utterly wicked individual, in hot pursuit to curse the Jewish people, and who ultimately was directly involved in having 24,000 Jews die. Does Hashem really care about the dignity of someone like that? Apparently, to some degree, yes. Whatever the parameters and explanation for this is, it nevertheless certainly relates a profound importance on understanding the dignity of a human being.

All this notwithstanding, R’ Henoch Leibowitz uncovers a striking insight into the ramifications of not keeping this donkey alive.

The Midrash says, “Woe to us from the day of judgment, woe to us from the day of rebuke, for if Bilaam who was such a wise person was unable to withstand the donkey’s rebuke, how much more so in regard to us withstanding Hashem’s rebuke” [after we pass on]. It’s apparent from the Midrash that the donkey’s rebuke is fundamental to help us be aware of how we carry through with our lives. If so, wouldn’t it be crucial to keep it alive to be used as a visual icon in order to motivate those who see it to take mussar from it and improve their ways? R’ Leibowitz points out that this goes to show the overwhelming importance of the idea of how sacred a person’s dignity is, so much so that for the sake of imparting this idea we even forfeited this donkey who could’ve been so vital for our self-reflection and improvement.

It’s perhaps implicit from this “opportunity cost” that the mussar one could’ve taken from seeing the donkey and improving based on it would perhaps not be as beneficial as learning the lesson of understanding a person’s esteem. Both frameworks work, but the tradeoff seems to imply that reflecting on the concept of a human being’s dignity can be a greater impetus for spiritual growth.

When one wants to build oneself, especially after a period of decline, there may be various types of “self mussar” one might utilize to motivate oneself. One is similar to the sharpness of the donkey’s mussar—“Hashem gives you so much, and this is how you’re going about life?” It’s true, cogent and straight to the point. However, while it may affect one, it lacks a foundation and an acknowledgement of one’s strengths and abilities to assist one to surge forward and confidently improve. However, when one sees himself as a person with outstanding potential, a regal person with dignity beyond comprehension, one doesn’t necessarily need to actively give himself mussar but rather the feeling of “someone like me can do better” becomes a natural mussar response. In this second method, a person is grounded in a personal reality where one recognizes his or her potential and is thus fortified with strength to muster forward and strive to do great things.

At times, if we fail, we might on some level knock ourselves down and one may thus become focused on his shortcomings and use this to motivate himself. Granted, a person is to be aware of his limitations; however, acknowledging our innate greatness and on how we have the ability to grow henceforth from where we are now may be far more necessary to focus on. As R’ Yerucham Levovitz said, “Woe to a person who is unaware of his faults as he does not realize what he needs to repair; but double woe is to one who doesn’t recognize his virtues since then he is unaware of his tools.”

The mussar learned from the donkey’s mussar can certainly be highly motivating when pondered. Yet, Hashem forfeited the donkey, thereby giving up a greater revelation of this mussar for the sake of relating to us the “mussar” of our innate dignity, perhaps teaching us that raising ourselves up can be greater achieved through being aware of our who we truly are and the abilities we possess.


Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected].

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