Donkey: Our Inner GPS

In the world of the Tanakh, donkeys are well-respected, highly-valued working animals, with a number of legal rights. They are entitled to one day off per week. They must not be expected to keep up with a gigantic ox, or to carry a heavy load. Donkeys in the Tanakh work hard, and they work everywhere. They provide transportation, and they also provide spiritual guidance.

The most famous equine spiritual guide stars in Parshat Balak.

As the story opens, King Balak’s messengers approach the prophet Bilam, offering him a short-term contract to place a curse on the Israelites.  God speaks to Bilam and says, “Do not go on this mission.” Bilam reports this answer to the messengers. King Balak does not accept the prophet’s refusal, and he sends higher-ranking messengers to press Bilam. Bilam continues to say no. Later that night, however, Bilam has a numinous dream. God appears and says, “Go on the mission…just be sure to speak only as I direct you.”

So Bilam saddles up his donkey, and rides off with the messengers. The donkey travels as usual until she sees an angel blocking her way. She veers off to the side. With a flick of his riding crop, Bilam signals to her to return to the path. But the angel allows the donkey to go in only one direction. She moves in the only way she can, and her rider Bilam hits a wall. He flicks his crop again, but the donkey sees no alternative route and does not move. Bilam loses his temper and hits her with his staff. Instead of moving, she asks, “Have I ever steered you wrong?”

Bilam is not the only Biblical character who is guided by a donkey.

Avraham saddles up his donkey as he prepares to follow God’s instruction to offer his son Yitzchak. Avraham does not yet know the precise destination, but trusts that God will let him know.

Avigail rides a donkey as she heads out to avert a massacre. It seems Avigail’s husband has insulted the war hero David, and David’s band is on its way to put the man in his place. Avigail knows only that David, whom she has not met, is a very violent man.  Yet, as she dismounts from her donkey, she finds the words that calm David down.

The Shunamite woman, a disciple of the wandering prophet Elisha, relies on a donkey in her time of need. When son suddenly becomes deathly ill, she saddles up her donkey and heads out to find Elisha. She finds him, and he heals her son.

When something must be done, but you aren’t sure exactly what, you saddle up the donkey, your intuitive guide to the right destination. The Torah’s stories about donkeys are rooted in real-life experiences with these reliable animals. Intelligent and cautious, a donkey assesses a situation, makes a decision, and rarely changes course. Once a donkey trusts the person accompanying it, the donkey becomes a friendly, playful, and loyal companion.

Many people feel as though they have an inner voice guiding them to clarity in times of stress. The philosopher Socrates called this voice his daimon, his guiding spirit. Because the voice of the daimon expresses a deep natural wisdom, some people picture it as an animal guide. People may choose animals they find beautiful, exotic, and inspirational. They may choose animals they find familiar, with whom a close relationship has revealed to them the possibility of seeing from a foreign point of view.

The writers of the Tanakh chose the familiar, respected donkey to represent the daimon. Its familiar presence hints at spiritual processes hidden in ordinary life. Its respected status reminds us to listen to its teachings. More significantly, the image of traveling with a donkey allows authors to hint at three stages of accessing the daimon. First comes a ritual preparation, “saddling up the donkey.” Next comes an extended listening, “riding the donkey.” These steps lead to an understanding of the message, reaching the destination and “dismounting.” These are the steps that Avraham used to find faith; Avigail used to find words of peace; and the Shunamite woman used to find healing.

In Bilam’s case, something goes wrong as he is riding. Frustration and anger block his ability to listen. The story tells us the source of his confusion. First God says “don’t go”; then God says “go.” It seems the mixed messages put Bilam on edge. He follows the last instruction, saddles up the donkey and rides – but the donkey brings him to a wall. Spiritually speaking, Bilam prepares to sort things out through inner reflection, but he hits a wall in his discernment. Enraged, he lashes out at his guide and threatens to kill it with his sword. But when the donkey asks, “Have I ever steered you wrong?” Bilam can only say “No.” He has no choice but to reflect on the meaning of the wall he has hit.

When he opens his inner eye, he sees the angel. “Why are you hitting your donkey?” asks the angel. “Your donkey saves your life.” Perhaps Bilam still does not know how or why he lost touch with his daimon. But he does know that he wants to reconnect. He apologizes to the angel and asks for guidance.

Bilam finds his way through the anger to clarity, but not all donkey riders in the Tanakh are so fortunate.

The early Israelite judge Shimshon puts his physical strength in service to the people. But his use of his strength is guided by his undirected anger. This anger destroys his personal life, and ultimately it destroys his public life as well. At one point, his wife leaves him for another man. He sets fire to some fields; the owners retaliate with another fire, killing Shimshon’s wife. Shimshon attacks them with the bone of a dead donkey. At this point, the dry bone is all that remains of Shimshon’s inner guide. When Shimshon throws the bone away, nothing at all is left of his inner compass. By the end of his life, Shimshon is completely blinded. All that remains is the force of his anger, and his last act is an act of revenge.

Do not disrespect your donkey: such is the Tanakh’s teaching. This steady, stubborn, plodding, cautious, loving guide is a counterbalance to anger. When anger threatens, use the three-step method to activate the donkey daimon. Prepare ritually for prayer, take time to receive a message, and only then make a practical decision. Through this method, we can come to know the right road, the peace-making words, and the path to healing.

The prophet Zechariah teaches that we never outgrow our need for this method. He declares that the renewed leader of Israel – the Mashiach — will be “just, victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Yes, the gifted leader will have already cultivated stellar middot, stellar inner qualities. But the leader will not rest in personal qualities alone. The leader will be guided by God’s inner presence along the right path, speaking words of peace, and finding healing.

If the frustrations of politics pull this leader off course, a nudge from the inner donkey will bring the leader back. May it be so.

— Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2011


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