Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)

I really should be sleeping.

I have a 6AM flight to San Francisco tomorrow morning (yes, retirees get vacation too).  I will not be back in time to send out TPH – Balak next week, so you’re getting it now.  Of course, I underestimated how long the last little details of trip prep would take.  Please bear with me.

This week’s portion is a bit of an anomaly.  The Israelites are present in reputation only (like men in the 1939 film, “The Women”).  As I wrote in 2010 (sorry),

“Last week:  life, death, purity and impurity, despair and hope.  This week: a frightened king, a puffed-up sorcerer, and a talking ass (literal, not figurative).

“For all but the last nine verses in this week’s portion, we see the Israelites from a different perspective, only through the eyes of Balak, king of Moab, and Bil’am (Balaam in English translations), a prophet of sorts whom Balak hires in an attempt to deal with the Israelite threat.  Yes, now that they’ve had a few military victories and are perched on the banks of the Jordan, they are a genuine threat. The story: Bil’am has a reputation for being an effective sorcerer whose blessings and curses really stick, and Balak wants to hire him to curse the Israelites.  Bil’am is a shady character.  On the one hand, he does have some limited rapport with the Lord, through dreams, but he’s out for himself.  He’s told by the Lord not to curse the Israelites because “they are blessed” (22:12). Bil’am is told not to with them (imahem, 22:12), then he’s told he can go with them (itam, 22:20), then when Bil’am goes with them (im, 22:21), the Lord is angry and blocks his path with an angel and fiery sword whom only Bil’am’s old she-ass can see.  After beating her a few times, the poor animal talks and Bil’am is finally able to see the angel and is warned to say only what the Lord tells him to.  The Vilna Gaon explains what appears to be divine fickleness with reference to the Hebrew words used for “with” (yes, it depends what “with” means), im, used to indicate total commitment and philosophical alignment and et, which just indicates physical proximity.  By this reasoning, the Lord directed Bil’am only to accompany Balak’s messengers in 22:20, but Bil’am instead joins them (22:21), whence the divine anger and angel with the flaming sword.  And apparently Bil’am can’t see the angel at first because he is with (im) the enemies of Israel.

“The upshot, to Balak’s dismay, is that Bil’am is compelled to bless the Israelites instead of cursing them; to this day, verses from of one of the blessings is part of our liturgy, (Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov…,” “How good are your tents, Jacob..,” 24:5:.).Balak tries to change blessing to curse by moving Bil’am around (maybe if you see them from this angle…) and even tells him to at least just keep his mouth shut, all to no avail.  Bil’am even expands his horizons to prophesy concerning the Moabites, Amalekites, Kenites…  The Bil’am leaves, most unlikely unpaid.

“The portion ends with what has been interpreted as Bil’am’s revenge on the Israelites, the fornicating with Moabite women at Ba’al Peor, leading to a plague (of course) which is ended not by Moses’s intercession but by an act of zealotry by Aaron’s grandson, Pinchas.  More on that next time.”

Why does the Lord tell Bil’am he can go with Balak et al. and then get angry when he does?  The Lord is giving Bil’am free choice, hoping he’ll make the right one. When he fails, his free will is taken away, at least with respect to his cursing contract with Balak.

By the way, in English, Bil’am is called Balaam.  My brother told me the following in 2007 (thanks, David!).  Note that patakh is the vowel _ (ah) and chirik is. (ee).

“On the pronunciation of the name of the talking donkey’s owner:  There is evidence that often an initial khirik  was previously a patakh, a pronunciation preserved when the Bible was translated into Greek 2200 years ago and later passed on to Latin and English.  That explains pairs like Bil’am/Balaam, and Miriam/Mary.  The original patakh also survives in the future of verbs beginning with gutterals.   Thus we say ya’amod, but yikhtov.  So the present day English pronunciation is actually a bit closer to the original than the Hebrew is.”

If you have questions about that, I’ll send them on to my brother.

Shabbat shalom,

Parshas Balak

by J. Efram Taub Posted: 07-09-2006(Viewed 992 times)

BILAAM: Can I curse them? Can I curse them? Can I curse them?

G-D: Sure…try it…

BILAAM: (Ahem) —Mah Tovu Ohalecha…

BALAK: Why I oughta…

G-D: (snicker)


Perspective Quotes

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.
Marcus Aurelius

You must look within for value, but must look beyond for perspective.
Denis Waitley

The world itself looks cleaner and so much more beautiful. Maybe we can make it that way – the way God intended it to be – by giving everyone, eventually, that new perspective from out in space.
Roger B. Chaffee

Part of the beauty of Judaism, and surely this is so for other faiths also, is that it gently restores control over time. Three times a day we stop what we are doing and turn to God in prayer. We recover perspective. We inhale a deep breath of eternity.
Jonathan Sacks

Talking Parrot

One day a man went to an auction. While there, he bid on a parrot. He really wanted this bird, so he got caught up in the bidding. He kept on bidding, but kept getting outbid, so he bid higher and higher and higher.

Finally, after he bid way more than he intended, he won the bid – the parrot was his at last!

As he was paying for the parrot, he said to the Auctioneer, “I sure hope this parrot can talk. I would hate to have paid this much for it, only to find out that he can’t talk!”

“Don’t worry.” said the Auctioneer, “He can talk. Who do you think kept bidding against you?”


From 2010

Angle Jokes

What do you call a politically correct angle? …. (right)

What do you call a stubborn angle? …. (obtuse)

What do you call a pretty angle? …. (a-cute)

More Angle Jokes

What do you call a crushed angle?
A Rectangle

What did the complementary angle say to the isosceles triangle?
Nice legs!


Top 10 Talking Donkeys

This is a list recognizing the ten greatest talking donkeys from books, movies and television. Some of the donkeys on this list are special because they were never expected to talk (like any normal donkey), and it is either magical or miraculous that they did. Others simply live in a world where all animals can talk, and they are noteworthy for other reasons.


The Ass in the Lion’s Skin

The Ass in the Lion’s Skin is a fable attributed to Aesop. An ass dresses in the skin of a lion so that he can go around scaring the other animals. He’s caught when \a fox hears him bray.  Moral: you can never tell a fool by the way they dress, but you always can once they open their mouth.



Muhammad’s Talking Donkey

From a story in the book The Beginning and the End in which Muhammad receives from God a gift of four sheep, four goats, ten pots of gold and silver and a black donkey that can talk, obey him, and does not desire females.


Benjamin, a pessimistic but realistic talking donkey in Animal Farm (1945), by George Orwell.



The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

This show is basically a mash-up of Dumbo and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with a little Bambi.  Nestor is a gray, stop-motion donkey with freakishly long ears who is rejected by all the other donkeys. Orphaned, he wanders to Israel and finds Joseph and Mary, whom he helps travel to Bethlehem.  The narrator is a talking donkey named Spieltoe.  “You never knew Santa Claus had a donkey?’ he asks with a drawl, “who do you think pulls his snow plow?”



From the movie The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, Leroy is a talking donkey who, more impressively, plays the tuba. The Muppet version of the German folktale is set in the rural bayou of Louisiana, and the music is New Orleans-style jazz. Leroy is later joined by Rover Joe, the hound dog (who plays the trombone), Catgut the cat (the trumpet) and T.R. the rooster (vocals and tambourine), with various rats and Kermit the Frog serving as MC.


Baba Looey


For my money, there’s nothing cuter than a short cartoon burro with a sombrero and a thick Mexican accent. Enter Baba Looey from the wild west themed Quick Draw McGraw Show. When Baba Looey, voiced by Hanna-Barbera legend Daws Butler, says “Quick Draw” it sounds like “Quick Straw.” Now that’s adorable.


Balaam’s Talking Ass

Numbers 22

To recap, the prophet Balaam and his donkey are traveling together when the donkey sees an angel and refuses to walk any further. Frustrated, Balaam begins to beat the animal until it speaks, etc. (Hey, just go read the portion. IGP)



Originally created by the British author A.A. Milne for the Winnie-the-Pooh books, Eeyore has reappeared in several Disney movies and television shows and has achieved the greatest popularity, by far, of all the characters in the series. As a quick demonstration, consider that, at the time this list was composed, Eeyore had over 241,000 fans on Facebook—92,000 more than compatriot Tigger and 85,500 more than the Pooh Bear himself. Maybe all those fans can do something to help Eeyore overcome all his mental and emotional problems.




He’s positive, sensitive, talkative, his favorite food is waffles, and he even flew for a brief moment with the help of some pixie dust. Yes, the one and only Donkey from the Shrek tetralogy, voiced by veteran Eddie Murphy, hardly needs any further explanation (so I won’t give any.  IGP).



It is impossible to overstate the sheer beauty and brilliance of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  And it all starts with Bottom. After all, it’s Bottom who dreams the dream, or as he calls it, the “most rare vision,” and any high school teacher could tell you the most important role in any Shakespeare comedy is the fool.

Plus, he’s an ass named Bottom. How could he not be at the top of this list?

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