The Biblical donkey is here, to talk about redemption. Especially about our role in it. So, let’s hear what the donkey has to say.
King Balak of Moab hires the seer Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balaam is a dedicated follower of Hashem. So, when God comes to him in a dream and says, “Accept the job,” Balaam accepts it. But he tells his employers that he can only say what God tells him to say. Still, it seems, Balaam doesn’t yet see the whole picture. But the next morning he saddles up his donkey and rides on out to work.
Along the way Balaam’s donkey sees an angel holding a sword. So, she stops suddenly. By accident, she traps Bilam’s leg against a wall. He becomes angry. He hits her with a stick and curses her. So she says, “What have I done to provoke this? You’ve been riding me for years. Is it my habit to do this?” Balaam says, “No.” Then, his eyes open and he sees the angel. We can guess that he dismounts, because, he bows low to the ground (Numbers 22).
The story continues, but let’s pause here. Because you learn more from Torah when you stop to ask questions. Why does the narrator give Balaam’s donkey a starring role? What are we supposed to learn from the donkey? That Balaam’s spiritual vision is so poor, it’s worse than a donkey’s? No, obviously not. Because even the simplest reader knows that a donkey is a smart working animal.
So, what role does our “best supporting actor” donkey play in this story?
Donkey: Spiritual Guide
Let’s begin with a classical midrashic perspective. Here, every Torah story is also part of a larger story: the promise of our future redemption. But to see the full story, you have to find patterns. Like the patterns across donkey stories. Typically, they star a human character who isn’t sure where they are going. Or what they are going to do when they get there. So, they saddle up their donkey and ride.
Abraham does it when he sets out to offer Isaac on the altar. He only knows he’s going to a place that God will show him. But he saddles up and goes where his donkey takes him (Genesis 22).
Abigail does it when the outlaw David threatens her husband’s life. She does not know what she will say to appease David. But she saddles up her donkey and rides. When she finally meets David, her words to him are a diplomatic masterpiece (I Samuel 25).
When the Shunamite woman’s son falls ill, she rushes out to find the healer Elisha. She has no idea where he is. But she saddles up her donkey and rides. Eventually she finds Elisha, and he saves her son’s life (II Kings 4).
Obviously, the donkey is a spiritual guide. A psychological GPS, if you will. If you are not convinced, look at the stories where people lose their donkeys. When the judge Samson is consumed with anger, he attacks people with a bone from a dead donkey. In other words, he loses what little good sense he had (Judges 15). We first meet Saul, the failed king, when he is looking for his father’s lost donkeys. Spoiler alert: he never finds them (1 Samuel 9).
Riding the Donkey: A Meditation
Fortunately, instructions for accessing our own inner donkey GPS are hidden in the Torah. To find them, we look at the Torah through classical hasidic eyes. Thus, we read Torah as a meditation manual. So, we look carefully at what the successful donkey riders do. They follow a three step process. Saddle the donkey; ride the donkey; and dismount. So, to access God’s guidance, you first do a ritual of preparation. Go to your chosen spot, sing your special niggun, read your prayerful words. Next, you ask God a question and you listen for the answer. Listening is a journey; it might take some time. Finally, you are ready to make a practical decision. That’s the three-step process: saddle, ride, dismount.
But, for these lessons, we don’t need to hear a donkey speak. So, let’s look for another teaching. Because every detail in Torah is significant. Especially in Torah’s world of magical realism. In this genre, the overall setting is realistic. But magical things do happen. And characters simply accept this as part of life. Why?
Magical Realism and Marginal Speech
Mishnah Pirkei Avot 5:8 suggests an answer. It lists ten unusual animals, plants and objects from the Torah. God, says the mishnah, made them all. On the sixth day of creation. At twilight, just before Shabbat. So, as I see it, God created a world of magical realism. Here, odd events happen all the time. But we only see them at twilight, so to speak. At the edges of consciousness, in times of transition.
Sometimes, authors use magical realism to showcase edgy perspectives. Such as truths about humans seen by non-humans, like the donkey. And truths about power articulated by marginalized people. For example, when they tell the powerful, “reality is more complex than you think.” Or ask corrupt leaders, “why are you harming me, when you built your life on my back?” This kind of speech is happening right now, especially in North America. COVID-19 has pushed all of us to the edges of everyday reality. And Black, Indigenous people, and People of Color are speaking their truth. Others are seeing it, too; some for the first time. So, they, too, are protesting for justice.
The prophet Zechariah teaches that the renewed leader of Israel – the Mashiach — will be “just, victorious, humble and riding on a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9). Now we can see what he means. This leader will have good judgment. They will pray with humility. And they will pay attention to voices that call for justice. And, if the frustrations of politics pull them off course, a nudge from their inner donkey will bring them back.
May it be so.