32 minutes | Jun 27, 2021

Wonder of Wonders, Miracles of Miracles - God made a Donkey Talk

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on Clubhouse Friday June 25th as they identify the miracle of the Talking Ass as a singular gratuitous miracle which serves as neither a sign or lesson, punishes the wicked or provides a victory to the children of Israel. We use this as an excuse to explore the refreshingly ambivalent attitude of the Torah and Rabbinic Judaism to miracles. Link to Sefaria Source Sheet here: www.sefaria.org/sheets/331556 Transcript: Geoffrey Stern  Welcome to Madlik on clubhouse every Friday at four Eastern. This week's parsha is Balak, which is about a Moabite king who looks out into the desert and sees the children of Israel on their way about to cross over his country on the way to the promised land. And he is concerned he's scared. The actual word that is used for him being scared is "vayagar", which is interesting, because it's the same root as the word for stranger. But fear of the stranger we'll leave for another time. What interests me today is that he sent out some messengers to hire a Moabite prophet named Balaam. And the messengers go to this Balaam and ask him to curse the Jewish people. And Balaam says, Well, I have to sleep on it. And he truly speaks to the Lord our God that night. And the Lord says, You can't curse these people, they are blessed. And he goes back and forth with these messengers, and they offer him more and more money. So he takes another night. And finally he cajoled the Lord into letting him go to at least meet with the King Balak. And on the way there, he's riding his donkey, and his donkey sees an angel at the end of the road, maybe they were on a bridge. And much like the story of the Black Beauty, the donkey turns to the side, and Bilaam whips the donkey. The donkey sees the angel again turns to the other side, this time he scrapes the leg of Bilaam. And now Bilaam is really angry and hits her again. And finally "the Lord opened the ass's mouth. And she said to Balaam, what have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? Balaam says to the ass, you have made a mockery of me. If I had a sword with me, I'd kill you. And the ass said to Balaam Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day, have I been in the habit of doing this to you? And he answered No." And so we have a story of a donkey talking. And what is remarkable to me is that it's just part of the story. Bilaam doesn't doesn't say: "Wow, I didn't know that you could talk" he responds to the donkey. And so I'd like to use this as an opportunity to understand and to explore the function, the place, the value of miracles, in religion in general, and in the Jewish and ancient Isralite traditions in particular. And we will explore all the different variations of miracles that appear in the in the text. But to me, this is striking in just kind of being gratuitous. Being there, for no good reason could have been the angel himself talking to Bilaam. So the question that I raise is what is the function of the donkey in this story. And then in general, what is the place of the miraculous in Judaism   Adam Mintz  The Torah is full of miracles, the receiving of the Torah, the splitting of the Red Sea and the 10 plagues. What's interesting is talking animals.  The only other talking animal, that we have is the snake at the beginning of the Torah, where the snake talks to Eve. And it's fadinating to compare the snake talking to Eve to the donkey, talking to Bilaam. First of all, it's interesting about the choice of animals. Now I'm not an animal person. So to me, all animals are the same. So I don't know why in one case, you choose to snake and in the other case you choose a donkey, just choose one animal so I don't understand why there's a different type of animal. But look at the first case of the animal speaking, the snake tries to trick Eve.  The second time, the donkey actually tells the truth to Bilaam. What's the purpose of the animal speaking, both to trick Eve and to tell the truth to Bilaam. I find that to be an interesting question.   Geoffrey Stern  I like your comparison. I would like to kind of broaden the question not so much of animals speaking, but of nature being changed of breaking the rules of nature. But I do think that even if you look at it from that point of view, there are different types of miracles that we see in the Bible. There are miraculous salvations, the splitting of the sea of Reeds. Clearly, when this small band of Jews wins a battle, that's a miracle. But it's a functional miracle. And there are other miracles that we'll explore today. But to me, what strikes me about maybe both of these miracles, besides the fact that there are animals talking is it almost seems like it's gratuitous? You know, you sometimes you see a movie, and you say, you know, they didn't need that sex scene, it was a gratuitous sex scene. In this case, I don't think you really needed the donkey to talk, I think that maybe the angel could have spoken. It almost doesn't seem to be inherent in the story in the case of the snake. So the snake really was tempting Eve. And of course, this was very early on, in the kind of the segmentation of the animal world and the human world. So you can even make a case that maybe the snake sheds its skin, so it's immortal, or it was immortal in the old world. Oreven better yet. Let me try this distinction between the snake and the donkey. This snake could very easily be associated with Satan. And the donkey, as you said, was speaking from a good place, from God. It doesn't surprise us. If Satan goes....  the evil in the world goes and breaks the rules. But the question of why this donkey spoke of why we needed it to speak. And is it unique from that point of view, from our point of view of gratuitous miracles, if you will? What do you do about that distinction?   Adam Mintz  That's a great question. So the snake has a job, because the snake is there to trick Eve. And maybe you needed something out of the ordinary, to trick Eve. She wasn't going to be tricked in a normal way. But what role did the donkey play? Actually, Geoffrey, you  can ask in a more basic question, just in the story of this week's parsha. What role does the donkey play? If you were to delete the word donkey, would it change the story at all?   Geoffrey Stern  I totally agree. And that's why I you can call it superfluous. You can call it gratuitous. And it doesn't even seem to get the reaction one would expect. Bilaam doesn't say oh, my God, a talking donkey! He just answers it. He says you've made a fool of me. Like he talks to donkeys every day. So I want to suggest that this is not strange only to us. There is a passage in Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) that talks about 10 things being created on the eve of the first Shabbat right after creation had been finished, at twilight, Ben Hashmashot. And it lists a bunch of miracles. It says the mouth of the earth which I assume is a relationship to Korach, the mouth of the well. The mouth of the donkey which is a clear association with the the donkey in our story. The rainbow the manna, the staff of Moses, I guess when he was in front of the magicians in Egypt. And the bottom line of it is this mishnah in Avot.  First, 2nd, 3rd Century AD has a problem with miracles. And what it is ultimately saying unless I'm reading it wrong, is that every time one of these miracles happened, it's almost like an algorithm or a hack written into creation. So that donkeys did not speak. But somehow they threw a little piece of code into the donkey heritage that at that moment on that bridge that donkey was going to speak and it's far fetched, but what's not far fetched is they're clear unhappiness and unwillingness to accept that the rules of nature change. And what makes that remarkable to me is, these are rabbis, these are members of a religion, and is not religion based on breaking the laws of nature on a higher authority ..... on miracles? To me, this bias against changing the world and for nature, and the rules of nature is very impressive. What's your read of this Mishnah?   Adam Mintz  I think I want to take it back for a minute. It says here that these things were created Ben Hashmashot.  What do you make of that?  They were created in the last moments of Friday? It's almost as if they're not part of the normal creation. They were snuck in at the last minute when nobody was looking. Right? That's the first question you have to ask. It's telling you that they don't quite fit into nature. But what is the idea of Ben Hashmashot?   Geoffrey Stern  To me, it's, as you say, the code was written, the the product was created. And somebody in this case God threw in a few secret back, (if I was a programmer, I would know the right word). But back codes, that at the precise moment that they were necessary, they would do what was needed to be done. But ultimately, it was pre ordained, it almost smells like either God cannot or will not make changes in the laws of nature besides these 10 or 11 changes. That to me is what is impressive, but the hashmashot,  the Twilight part of it is, this is a fuzzy area. This is whether it's an afterthought, or a little tweak, or Twinkle, I don't know.   Adam Mintz  Good. I think that that's good. But I think that what we're actually doing Geoffrey, logging up all of the oddities of this talking donkey. When he was created, what he did, how was he different than the snake? Right? And it's all gratuitous. It's not necessary. So not only does the Torah make a big fuss about something that doesn't need such a big fuss, but the rabbi's seem to make a big fuss about something that doesn't need such a big fuss does not interest you also?   Geoffrey Stern  Well, well, it does. I mean, it's hard to say that the Manna was gratuitous. So I don't think that they are lined up necessarily against gratuitous stuff. But what they are saying is it's a very strong, I would say, an powerful expression of the rabbi's dedication and commitment to the laws of nature, that we do not live in an arbitrary world where either God or other spiritual forces can play with it. And I think that you could actually make a case that this kind of general approach, which I would love to characterized as being either neutral towards miracles, or almost anti miracles, led to great scientists coming out of our tradition, such as my Mainmonides, who clearly picks up on this discussion in many of his writings. Who believes that there is a science out there, there are laws of physics and laws of chemistry and all that, it's not arbitrary. It's like Einstein said, "God does not play dice with the universe". So that's on a scientific level. But even on a spiritual level, it seems to me they didn't get a rise from the miraculous. And in fact, they had to go out of their way to come up with this theory, to downplay the miraculous and from a spiritual community and from a 2000 plus year old religion, whether now but certainly in the past where we lived in a magical world and there was magical thinking and many times it was associated with religion, they didn't seem to buy into it, and that's what strikes me as so interesting.   Adam Mintz  Good, I like that. I like that connection to Maimonides. This is really the clash between miracles and science. This is how you started when you asked me, are there miracles? And the answer is, yes, there are miracles. But how do you explain miracles in the light of science? Now, Geoffrey, when you talk about miracles? Would you say that this story of the talking donkey is like the splitting of the sea?   Geoffrey Stern  So I think not. And that's why I said, I find the story of the talking donkey unique because it's gratuitous....I was going to kind of parse different types of miracles that are in the Torah, you know, they say that Eskimos have 100 words for snow. Well, it seems to me the rabbi's have a bunch of words for the miraculous. There's a word called an "Ote" a sign. But again, it's not gratuitous, because we call Shabbat, an "Ote" a sign We call Tephilin, an "Ote" that you put on your arms. And from that perspective, where it was a change that caught your attention, the change was not significant because of the change, it was significant because it was a symbol, it was a sign. Another word that's used is a "Mofet" and that goes more in terms of things that are changes in nature, like the 10 plagues, like the splitting of the Red Sea, that inflicted God's wrath or power on sinners, I guess you could include with that. Even Korach, although we're going to get a second to the word use there (Nes). But again, these were very practical, and they didn't necessarily have to be impossible, they might have been improbable. This splitting of the Red Sea is is something that was miraculous because it came at the right time, at the right instant, but it could be explained. All of the magicians were able to explain everything that Moses did with the staff, which was included in our list. So besides "Mofet" and "Ote".  The other one is "nes", which is I think a common word for miracles.   Adam Mintz  But what does the word "nes" mean?  "Nes" is like a flag a marker.   Geoffrey Stern  It is but if you recall, when God tested Abraham before the the sacrifice of Isaac before the Akeda, it said "v'Hashem Nisa et Avraham", he tested him and Nachmanidies explains that it is a flag it is something that rises up, but it's also a test. In other words, it's an opportunity for us to reveal our strength or power, our perseverance. And there were more words for miracles and we'll get to them in a second. But for these most common words are symbolic, as much as they are changing nature. They are morally, ethically, spiritually edifying in case of testing Abraham, and being able to survive the test. So, again, I do think there is an issue of a gratuitous miracle. And the funny thing here is that it doesn't even refer to Bilaam's donkey talking as a miracle. It's so funny that it just kind of puts it into the narrative without making any changes. But again, if we're using this as an excuse to explore the biblical version of miracles, it too says with the rabbies, I think, very little value for gratuitous miracles. There's no point just impressing people, by changing nature and saying up there must be a god there must be a spiritual element. The changes in nature are either to protect, to defend, to punish or to edify and to serve as a symbol.   Adam Mintz  Okay, all this is great. Now, I have another question. What do you make about the fact that the Donkey spoke with non Jewish prophet? You think that's significance? Of all the all the ways to use the donkey? Isn't it a funny way to use the donkey?   Geoffrey Stern  I think it's beautiful that the prophetic power of Bilaam the Prophet is also taken for granted. And that teaches me that God speaks to all people. Why in this particular instance, was there a use of a donkey? I don't have an answer for you. What I'm more impressed with is that Bilaam is without any explanation, understood that he can go to bed at night and speak to our Lord, which is his Lord. But I don't have an answer about the donkey being used to speak to him in particular.   Adam Mintz  Now, Michael, I think has jumped up as a speaker.   Geoffrey Stern  which we will always welcome.   Michael Posnik  A question, What does Bilaam learn from that moment? when nature is upside down? What does he actually learn when everything he wants to do? According to his plan and his desires and strategies? What does he learn from something that is completely incomprehensible to him? What changes does that bring about in him?   Geoffrey Stern  If you read the text, his answer to the donkey is the only insight that we get. And what he says is you have made a mockery of me. And this is a parallel with the story of Black Beauty, the horse that saves the life of the rider. These horses and animals that save us, they all seem to get punished. But in this particular case, Bilaam is embarrassed. It almost seems as though he has this ability to be a prophet. He wanted to exploit it for money. He literally wants to do what he's asked to do, but he can't. And now he's embarrassed. And I think it gives us an insight into him. He's not our typical vision of a prophet in terms of being a pure person. He seems to be someone who can tap into these powers, and is able to exploit them. Rabbi what's your feeling?   Adam Mintz  I think Michael, I think you've identified a problem in this text, meaning what is the significance of that piece of the story? I just want to turn it and take some of what Geoffrey said, and some what Michael said. And I want to just pull back a minute, Geoffrey, to what you started with, about miracles. And I want to know where you think this miracle of the donkey speaking, falls in the Torah's kind of List of miracles? Is this a big miracle? Is this kind of, beside the point miracle?  You called it gratuitous? That's something else. That has to do with the fact that it's unnecessary? What about in terms of like, changes of nature? Do you think having an animal talk is as big a miracle as splitting of the Read Sea?   Geoffrey Stern  So we're where I'm going, in my mind with this is using the donkey who is for better or worse, a universal symbol of a lowly creature, a creature of labor, a creature that gets no respect a cousin of a horse who is is a beautiful creature. And that kind of is is echoed in Bilaam's comment. You're embarrassing me, you know, maybe if you were a lion or something with more stature. We have to assume the donkey was picked with intentionality. And I think that the message that the donkey is sending, therefore, is very also humble, and down to earth. And I guess I promised that I wouldn't leave everybody in a cliffhanger as to how the whole story turns out. But I do at this point want to say that Bilaam ultimately, his arm is twisted, and he has to deliver some sort of blessing or curse and it turns out to be a blessing. So the blessing that he gives is in every synagogue as you walk in, it's "MaTovu Ohalicha Yaakov, Mishkenotecha Yisrael" "How goodly basically are the tents of Israel, which, again, a tent is as humble a life, pastoral nomadic life as you could ever have. And to me, the whole story is a celebration of the simple things in life if you want to be trite, it's helping us recognize that there's a miracle in the most simple things. So that to me kind of ties together why a donkey was used in this particular situation, and what the takeaway was either from Bilaam or from God through the mouth of Bilaam. Orna, I'd love to hear your thoughts.   Orna Stern  The voice of God that was talking through the donkey because the same way whenever God wants to speak to us and he speaks through animals....  the snake and they are all lowly animals .... the humbleness of God that he talks to us. The message from the snake was beautiful message because that Adam and Eve should leave Gan Eden to go explore the world. And then Moses that he spoke to Pharoah also through the snake. And every miracle that happended  like Isaac. The ram that was caught in the tree.  It'a all about animals .. the voice of God.  The message is so beautiful.  It's also for nowadays. "Shevet Achim gam Yachad" We all need to love each other, to respect each other everywhere in this country oin Israel.  With anti-semitism and everything.   Adam Mintz  I just want to say Geoffrey, I think it's important to say that, you know, given what happened in Florida this week (A collapse of a 12 story building with 150 souls killed), you think about "Ma tovu Ohalecha Yaakov" the blessing is the most simple thing. Where we live is the most simple thing. But we rely on it. And you see what terrible things can happen in even in the most simple thing that we have.   Geoffrey Stern  Absolutely. You see the images of, of children talking about their parents or grandparents or parents talking about their children. It's it's really just harrowing how this building was pancaked down into rubble. But it does remind you that in the structures that we live our lives and those lives are based relationships. And what I was thinking in terms of this kind of takeaway, in terms of ultimately Bilaam could have been used as a mouthpiece to give any message, but ultimately, the blessing that he gave related to just the simple community of these Bedouin/nomadic Jews in the desert. So I was thinking of another type of statement in the Talmud, I think I might have even quoted it before, where a woman matriarch asks a rabbi, "After God created the world", and I don't give her credit for knowing this, but not only created the world during the seven days of creation, but even during that Twilight period, after you did it all. "What do you do with yourself? Because she obviously understood that God is not changing nature on a regular basis. And the answer for those of you who know the stories is wonderful. And it says that God is making matches "Misadech Sheduchim" he is joining people together. And it's a wonderful story, and it goes on. But it reminded me of this song in Fiddler "Miracles of Miracles, Wonders of Wonders". And if you remember the lyrics to that song, it almost is identical "It says wonders of wonders miracles of miracles, God took a Daniel once again, stood by his side and miracle of miracles, walked him through the lions dead. And it goes down through the walls of Jericho, and it talks about the Red Sea splitting and it talks about every little miracle or large miracle that God did. But he says "but the most miraculous one of all, is that out of a worthless lump of clay. God has made a man of me today" My dad gave me a book called Wonders of Wonders by a Columbia professor. And it talks about everything that went into writing the play. And so I did a little research. And I looked for, were they aware of this midrash that God is misadech shiduchim. And I was surprised that the writers of most of the lyrics were Jews, but were very remote from the Jewish background. And literally, they came up with an idea of miracles. And according to this book, they were in a motel, and they grabbed the Gideon's Bible, and they started looking for miracles to put into lyrics. But to me, they were spot on. And maybe it's because this idea we Jews have that the real miracles in life relate to human beings, to the ability of us to find connections with each other, for the abilities of us to have hope when there should be no hope. Those are the true miracles. And to me, that's what Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov is all about.   Adam Mintz  That's really nice. I like that as an ending. I think that's a beautiful way to end a discussion. You said it was a little light today. I think talking about miracles is not light at all. I think there's a lot of real good substance in here.   Geoffrey Stern  Well, thank you for that. I agree. And I think that the the donkey certainly got his money's worth today, because he triggered this wonderful conversation.
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