Balak 2021: Listening to the More Than Human World

The story of Balaam and his donkey is often the butt of jokes and used as proof that the Torah is merely an ancient collection of superstitious folktales, but perhaps underneath the story is a much clearer message: We must open ourselves to hear the truths of the more-than-human world, or risk our own demise.

In our Torah portion this week, the magician Balaam is hired by the King Balak to curse the Israelites. While he is riding his donkey up to the place from which he plans to curse them, an angel wielding a sword appears in his way. He cannot see the angel, but his donkey can. Balaam stubbornly tries to force the donkey to walk through the angel by beating her, and is ultimately injured in the process. Finally the donkey confronts Balaam, saying “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”
Balaam responds, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”
The donkey rebukes him, saying, “Look, I am the donkey that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?”

I’ve heard many people speak of this scene derisively, even using it as a way to discount the entirety of the Bible as superstitious nonsense. I understand - if you take it on its face, it reads as a folktale. But if we delve a bit deeper, and look more closely at Balaam’s behavior, and his relationship to the donkey and God, there is a message for us today in the story.

Nahmanides, a medieval Torah commentator, wrote, “The donkey did not see the angel with her eyes, but felt the presence of something which frightened her off from passing on.”  

Perhaps just as the donkey felt the presence of the angel rather than seeing it, the donkey was also communicating a message in its own animal language. Perhaps this wasn’t miraculous at all, and instead, viewing Balaam the prophet as having access to a wider world of information and communication provides us a different perspective on the entire story.

In his book, Becoming Animal, philosopher David Abram writes, “[I]f we no longer call out to the moon slipping between the clouds, or whisper to the spider setting the silken struts of her web, well, then the numerous powers of this world will no longer address us—and if they still try, we will not likely hear them...We become ever more forgetful in our relations with the rest of the biosphere, an obliviousness that cuts us off from ourselves, and from our deepest sources of sustenance.” (p. 175)

Abram argues for a shift in human consciousness; to view ourselves in embedded relation with what he refers to as the “more-than-human world.” He advocates for the idea that all things speak and that we Modern people have simply forgotten how to listen, and how to speak back.

The classical rabbis, like Abram, saw that our more-than-human world has much to teach us, too. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement, that stealing is objectionable from the ant, which does not take grain from another ant, and proper relations from the dove, which is faithful to its partner.

Earlier on in the story, God tells Balaam to simply turn down King Balak’s commission to curse the Israelites. It was not his place, according to God, to intervene for good or bad with regard to the Israelites, As Rashi puts it, God’s message was akin to the parable: “People say to the hornet: neither any of your honey nor any of your sting!”

This is to say, just as the hornet has its particular role in the interweaving world of which we humans are also a part, so too do individual people have roles to play.

Balaam, in his wisdom as a soothsayer and a prophet, is informed of his role directly by God, then even by his donkey. Balaam doesn’t heed the wisdom of either member of the more-than-human world, but clearly still addresses them, and maintains connection with them. Perhaps Balaam has access to his prophecy precisely based on his willingness to call to the more-than-human world.Balaam realizes, after he is reprimanded and injured by his donkey, that he must listen to what the more-than-human world is telling him. His obstinacy blinded him to the angel causing him to stumble into dangerous territory - his donkey, in attempting to protect him in spite of his obstinacy, was forced to injure him. Had he listened to the more-than-human world from the get go, when God said to him, “You must not curse that people, for they are blessed,” he would have saved himself injury, as well as the trouble of a long journey, and angering a powerful king. But, eventually, Balaam learned.

We today stand blind to the angel wielding a sword before us. COVID has tried to open our eyes to the ways in which the more-than-human world can surprise us and even overturn our society. Hurricane Sandy was another moment of shock, almost a decade ago now. Each of these events speak to us loudly,just as the donkey spoke to Balaam, just as the ant teaches us not to steal. How can we listen and understand their language?

David Abram writes, “there’s a tacit sense that we’d better not let our awareness come too close to our creaturely sensations, that we’d best keep our arguments girded with statistics and our thoughts buttressed with abstractions, lest we succumb to an overwhelming grief—a heartache born of our organism’s instinctive empathy with the living land and its cascading losses.” (Becoming Animal, p. 7)

In short, we must start by listening to our bodies, and our feelings. We must connect with the world around us in a raw fashion, allowing it to touch our souls, allowing our bodies to be more than machines our brains and minds ride in, and instead treat them with the sensitivity and attention that we would give to data sets and news reports. We must first root ourselves in our more-than-human world by seeing that we are a part of it, not a separate entity, looking to collect a commission based on our own desires over and against the more-than-human world.

Balaam’s talking donkey reminds us that the world around us speaks to us always, and that we are irrevocably a part of it. As we begin this new stage in our society’s process of unfolding, let us not, like Balaam, ignore the messages from the world around us, and instead, like our rabbinic forebears, listen for the wisdom of the world. Let us wonder at the world around us, attending to it, feeling how it impinges upon us, how our minds and bodies, our senses engage with it, entering into a relationship of mutual love and respect, never taking for granted the more-than-human world that holds us within it.