Getting Our Attention (Balak)
By Reb David
The story of Balak seems like a fairy tale: a king wishing to curse Israel sends his seemingly hapless priest, who hears from a talking donkey and ends up blessing Israel instead. In this unlikely plot is a timeless lesson about the role of adversity in the flow of our lives. Balak sent Balaam the priest to curse Israel, and Balak’s dignitaries from Moab were to travel with him. The story unfolds with some of the Bible’s most entertaining and readable prose:
When [Balaam] woke in the morning, Balaam saddled his donkey and left with the Moabite dignitaries… [and] an angel of God placed himself in his way as an adversary.
[Balaam] was riding on his donkey, with his two servants alongside, when the donkey saw God’s angel standing in the way, sword drawn in its hand. The donkey swerved from the road and went into the fields; Balaam beat the donkey to turn her back onto the road. God’s angel then stationed itself in a lane between the vineyards, with a fence on either side. Seeing God’s angel, the donkey pressed herself against the wall and squeezed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he beat her again. Once more God’s angel moved forward and stationed itself on a spot so narrow that there was no room to swerve right or left. When the donkey now saw God’s angel, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the donkey with his stick.
Then God opened the donkey’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?” Balaam said to the donkey, “You made a mockery of me! If I had a sword, I’d kill you.” The donkey said to Balaam, “Look, I’m the donkey that you’ve rode all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” And he answered, “No.”
Then God uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw God’s angel standing in the way, drawn sword in hand; immediately [Balaam] bowed down to the ground. God’s angel said to him, “Why have you beaten your donkey these three times? It is I who came out as an adversary, for [your purpose to curse Israel] is obnoxious to Me. When the donkey saw me, she shied away because of Me those three times. If she hadn’t shied away from Me, you’re the one I should have killed but sparing her.” Balaam said to God’s angel, “I erred because I did not know that You were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I’ll turn back.” But God’s angel said to Balaam, “Go with the men, but you must say nothing except what I tell you” (Num. 20:22-35)
We might summarize the story from God’s vantage as follows: God didn’t want Israel cursed, but God didn’t stop Balaam’s journey. Instead, God transformed the journeyer to harness Balaam as God’s messenger: “Go with the men, but you must say nothing except what I tell you.” That’s how Balaam went out to curse the people but ended up blessing them.
And how did God transform Balaam? With an angel, of course, but that wasn’t Balaam’s experience until the end. Summarizing the story from Balaam’s perspective, first the donkey diverted Balaam from the road (oops!), then the donkey squeezed Balaam’s foot against a wall (ouch!), then the donkey led Balaam to a place too narrow to turn and refused to move (ugh!), then the donkey spoke to Balaam (huh?) and chewed him out (what?!), and only then did Balaam see God’s angel.
Isn’t this so often the way of our own adversity? We go off course, we feel pinched up against a wall, we head down a dead end and get stuck – all the while blindly persisting in our path. Only after a seemingly bizarre event gets our attention do our senses heighten to who and where we really are – how off course we strayed, and what our real mission is. However diverted we may be in any moment, a higher purpose can redeem our misadventure for good – if we allow it.
Our unintended diversions, pinched feet and stuck places are hints that we are, in fact, off course and being re-directed, even re-deployed. If we perceive these moments with heightened senses, we may find that our life events are trying to get our attention. If we listen with inner hearing, we may hear this call from even the most unlikely source. If we look with inner vision, we may see signposts suddenly as clear as an angel holding a flaming sword. If we speak with those lips, suddenly we may utter the most cosmic of blessings.