Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)

The comments below were first posted July 4, 2014. IGP

While looking for this week’s jokes, I saw a description of Balak, King of Moab, as “a few noodles short of a kugel.”  Not very bright.  He’s in a panic after hearing about the Israelites’ recent, nearby military victories, and what does he do?  Does he assemble a mighty army?  Does he try to negotiate with Israel?  No.  He sends for a sorcerer to curse Israel.

This sorcerer/prophet is Bil’am (commonly referred to in English as “Balaam,” which I’m told is probably closer to the ancient pronunciation – thanks, David).  Yes, in the Bible, the Israelites do not have a monopoly on prophesy.  Bil’am does have a connection with the Lord, but it’s a connection with some static in it.  Bil’am doesn’t get that, as a rather low-level prophet, he’s only supposed to convey the Lord’s messages.  Rather, he tends to hope to change a divine decision he doesn’t like to one that he does.  Case in point:  all that will-he-or-won’t-he go with Balak’s emissaries stuff.  Yes, the Lord tells him he can go but is clearly not happy about it.  As I wrote here a couple of years ago,

“Bil’am is told not to go 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.”

What happens next is that Bil’am blesses the Israelites.  Balak tries to change Bil’am’s perspective, literally, by moving him around to get different views of the people, but Bil’am blesses them a second time and even a third, even though Balak finally tells him to just shut up.  This third blessing includes a statement that has become part of our daily liturgy, (Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov, mishk’notekha Yisrael,” “How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” 24:5).  Before leaving his outraged client, Bil’am provides some actual prophesy (24:15-23) concerning the fates of Israel, Moab, and several other peoples, not soon, but someday.  [BTW, I gave a d’var Torah on the nature of Bil’am in more detail eight years ago, which I have posted for reference.

The last nine verses of this week’s portion bring us back to the Israelite camp with an abrupt change in mood.  Presumably at the instigation of Bil’am, the Moabite women are shamefully consorting with the Israelite men and invite them to sacrifice to their god.  Pinchas, son of High Priest Elazar, takes it upon himself to kill one high-status fornicating couple in the act with a spear.  Was this vigilantism?  Justice?  Vengeance?  Justifiable homicide?  We’ll consider this next week.

Shabbat shalom,


tph talking animals


Do animals have a sense of humor? (excerpts)

By Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

[In memory of Koko, expert in sign-language, who died in her sleep on June 19, 2018, at the Gorilla Foundation’s preserve in Woodside, California, at the age of 46. IGP]
Scientists believe human laughter evolved from the distinctive panting emitted by our great-ape relatives during rough and tumble play; that panting functions as a signal that the play is all in good fun and nobody’s about to tear anybody else’s throat out.

Nonhuman primates don’t just laugh—there’s evidence they can crack their own jokes. Koko, a gorilla in Woodside, Calif., who has learned more than 2,000 words and 1,000 American Sign Language signs, has been known to play with different meanings of the same word. When she was asked, “What can you think of that’s hard?” the gorilla signed, “rock” and “work.” She also once tied her trainer’s shoelaces together and signed, “chase.”

But what about other members of the animal kingdom—do they have funny bones? Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado–Boulder professor, believes they do.   As Bekoff points out, Darwin argued that the difference between human and animal intelligence is a matter of degree, not of kind. Or as Bekoff put it, “If we have a sense of humor, then nonhuman animals should have a sense of humor, too.”

A similar sentiment inspired psychologist Jaak Panksepp to enter his lab at Bowling Green State University in Ohio one day in 1997 and tell undergrad Jeffrey Burgdorf, “Let’s go tickle some rats.” The lab had already discovered that its rats would emit unique ultrasonic chirps in the 50 kilohertz range when they were chasing one another and engaging in play fighting. Now the researchers wondered if they could prompt this chirping through tickling. Sure enough, when the researchers began poking at the bellies of the rats in their lab, their ultrasonic recording devices picked up the same sounds. The rats eagerly chased their fingers for more.

Whether you call it laughter or not, Burgdorf is convinced these rats’ ultrasonic noises signal they’re experiencing happiness. Hence the “laughing pill” experiment: He and his colleagues are testing a new antidepressant medication on rats, to see if it makes them “laugh,” or chirp happily. If all goes well, Burgdorf believes the resulting medication could eventually be approved for humans.

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)



Top 10 Talking Donkeys (Excerpts. Slightly longer version sent out in 2013)

This is a list recognizing the ten greatest talking donkeys from books, movies and television.

10  The Ass in the Lion’s Skin, 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.

9 Ya’foor, 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.

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

7 Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey  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. 

6 Leroy From the movie The Muppet Musicians of Bremen, Leroy is a talking donkey who 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.

5 Baba Looey  A short cartoon burro with a sombrero and a thick Mexican accent, from the wild west themed Quick Draw McGraw Show. When Baba Looey, “Quick Draw” it sounds like “Quick Straw.” Now that’s adorable.

4 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)

3 Eeyore 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.

2 Donkey Shrek  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).

1 Bottom  Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  And it all starts with 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?


Quotes on Perspective

It’s not only moving that creates new starting points. Sometimes all it takes is a subtle shift in perspective, an opening of the mind, an intentional pause and reset, or a new route to start to see new options and new possibilities. Kristin Armstrong

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

Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable – a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. Brian Greene

A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way. Allen Klein


This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Balak (Numbers 22:2 – 25:9)

  1. markd60 says:

    On my phone, I have an app, Chabad Daily Torah reading. I like reading it here much better than reading it there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s