Sammy was enjoying his drive through the Catskill mountains when his car began to overheat. He pulled off to the side of the road, next to a pasture with several grazing cows. He popped the hood, and smoke billowed from the engine as Sammy tried to figure out where the problem was.

“Hey buddy!” a voice behind Sammy called out.

He turned around to see one of the cows up on its hind legs, leaning on the fence. “Looks to me like you’ve got a busted fuel pressure regulator,” it said.

Sammy was speechless. He ran to the nearby farmhouse while the cow shrugged its shoulders before returning to the pasture.

Sammy quickly found the farmer and told him what had happened. “You won’t believe me, but.. but.. your cow just spoke to me! About fuel pressure regulators! What’s going on?”

“Was it that white cow with a spot on the head, and a large patch of brown on the side?” the farmer asked.

“Yes, that’s the one! Am I dreaming??”

“Ah, that’s Rosie,” the farmer told him. “She’s such a know-it-all. Just ignore her. She doesn’t know the first thing about cars!”

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, King of Moav, hires Bilaam the prophet to go and curse the Jewish people. G-d instructed Bilaam not to go when first asked by Balak’s men, but when Balak sent an even larger and more distinguished group of emissaries, G-d then allowed Bilaam to go — but both told him, and then sent an angel to warn him, that he would only be able to say the words G-d would place in his mouth.

The angel came to Bilaam by blocking the road on which he was traveling. Bilaam’s donkey saw the angel, and stopped in its tracks. Bilaam, however, could not see the angel, and he struck his donkey to tell it to keep going. But even after straying off the path near a wall, the donkey could not get past the angel — so the donkey refused to budge, no matter how long Bilaam continued to hit it.

At that point, G-d miraculously empowered the donkey to speak to Bilaam, and to ask Bilaam to stop beating him. Bilaam then responded to the donkey in anger, as if speaking to another human being.

How could this happen? How could Bilaam simply respond and yell at his donkey, and not realize that talking donkeys don’t ordinarily exist? Wasn’t that a profound message to Bilaam in its own right?

Rabbi Shimon Schwab zt”l explains that a completely self-centered man finds it challenging to see beyond himself. He tragically loses his natural sense of wonder. After many years of following the whims and desires of his heart, Bilaam had become so self-absorbed that he was even numb to the clearly miraculous.

While it is rare to find a person as immune to wonder as Bilaam, it’s common to feel little excitement with those things that are part of our daily lives. Every day and every moment, however, is different, and we owe it to ourselves to not fall into Bilaam’s slumber. A marriage cannot be permitted to “go stale;” rather, the couple must revisit the moments and the reasons that brought them together in the first place. Likewise, if our relationship with G-d has weakened and our prayer and observance have become routine, we must look for opportunities to be amazed by G-d’s world. Ponder the intricacy of nature, appreciate the odd “coincidences” which alert us to a Divine Hand at work. If we keep our eyes open and actively seek opportunities to focus our interest, we can restore our sense of wonder and be inspired even by the mundane, the daily grind — and cultivate our relationship with G-d.

 

7 Comments

  1. this an interesting story/parable, but it doesn’t require the existence of “God” for validation. The words themselves have common sense, that kind of wisdom we call “sichel”. If you were counseling a couple whose marriage was failing, the wisdom does make sense, but it is quite beyond the necessity of a deity in this context.
    The wisdom may have a “creator’s” inspiration, but it is rather like looking for the secret of life in a symbolic creator when the actual answers are grounded in science. The creator’s input is quite beyond our comprehension and certainly not in the many “fairy tales” we find in holy books of all religions. some of those fairy tales promote evil.

    Reply
    • Sam, thanks for writing with your interesting thoughts.

      If I understand you correctly, you’re saying that the lesson Rabbi Schwab draws from the incident with Bilaam and the donkey is such common sense that there’s no need for G-d to tell it to us. Judaism teaches that there are 4 levels of lessons to be drawn from the Torah: Peshat, Remez, Drush, and Sod. You can read about those below, with the first verse of the Torah given as an example. What is offered in this piece is Peshat – the simple understanding, which often is common sense. Even though it’s common sense, an advantage of hearing this lesson from the Torah is it validates what we think to be true, plus it reminds us to live by that common sense. I’m sure you’ll agree that as common as common sense is, its unfortunately uncommon for people to live by it!

      From Ohr Somayach

      1. Pshat – simplest meaning, based on the text and context. Rashi explains that pshat of the verse as follows: “In the beginning of God’s creation of the heaven and the earth, the earth was desolate and void.” This is based on a linguistic analysis of the word “Bereshit,” which does not mean “In the beginning”, but “In the beginning of…”

      2. Remez – “hint.” The Gaon of Vilna taught that all commands of the Torah are hinted at in the first word of the Torah. For instance, Pidyon Haben – redemption of the first-born – is alluded to by an acronym of the letters of Bereshit, which spell “ben rishon acharei shloshim yom tifdeh” – the first son you shall redeem after thirty days.

      3. Drush – contextual and non-contextual, moral and philosophical explanations. Rashi states that there is a philosophical idea alluded to in the word “Bereshit.” The world was created for the sake of Torah which is called “reshit,” and for the Jewish people who are also referred to as “reshit.” Both are “firsts” in terms of their centrality in the purpose of Creation.

      4. Sod – hidden or secret meaning. Mishna: “The world was created with ten statements.” Gemara: “But when you count them there are only nine statements! Bereshit (In the beginning) is also a statement.” The statement of “Bereshit” was the creation of time, which is a dimension of the physical world. One of the names of G-d is “Hamakom” – “The Place” – as the Midrash explains that “He is the place of the world, the world is not His place.” This concept is based on the idea that the physical world would not exist if not for G-d willing it to exist at every moment. Therefore G-d is the “Place” of the world, meaning the framework of reality in which everything exists, and He provides the possibility of existence to all of Creation. The dimension of Time and the laws of nature were created during the six days of Creation. The Sforno, The Gaon of Vilna, the Maharal, and Maimonides, all basing themselves on the Talmud, state that the hidden meaning of the word “In the Beginning” – Bereshit – is the creation of what we today call “the space-time continuum.”

      Reply
  2. What can you say to the scientists among us who cannot and will not sacrifice our scientific intellectual integrity to allow ourselves to believe in talking donkeys which we know do not exist in the real world? It obviously causes us to seriously question the credibility and believability of this story which leads us to question the credibility and believability of the entire Torah.

    Reply
    • It’s not a scientific issue. Does science have an explanation for G-d? If you believe in G-d you can believe He does miracles that don’t follow the laws of nature/science. Miracles by definition are not scientific.

      Reply
      • All I’m saying is let’s be real here people. We live in the real world, not some make believe pretend imaginary world, and there is no such thing as talking donkeys or talking snakes in a garden in the real world, rather they exist only in your mind’s imagination. Sorry but just by saying that there is a God who can break all of the laws of science and nature by performing miracles doesn’t magically make any of those things possible in the real world

        Reply
        • So let me try to understand this. You’re saying you can believe there’s a G-d who can perform miracles, but that doesn’t mean that He does perform miracles because you haven’t seen any of them?

          Reply
  3. G-d is with me almost daily guiding me. Most likely every day, but I am not listening for His guidance as strongly as I ought to be. Seven times He has literally kept me from death. And most of my life is just so amazing that its unbelievable. So I have documents and other proof to validate how He has worked in my life.

    Reply

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