Sometimes you need something extraordinary, something that is literally extra ordinary, seemingly impossible and unbelievable to help us understand that which is believable, to help us appreciate that which is right in front of us that we have been told to ignore. And that is exactly what we saw as thousands of rallies took place across the country on Saturday morning to stand united in a fight to end xenophobic and discriminatory immigration policies, to stand united in the fight to keep families together. Appropriately, that is also what we read in Parashat Balak, in the weekly Torah reading this past Saturday morning – the unbelievable to help us remove the blinders from our eyes and stigma from society.
When the evil King Balak hires the magician Balaam to travel to the encampment of the Israelites and curse them, he begins his journey riding his trusted donkey. However, time and time again that donkey stops and refuses to move. Finally, as Balaam yells at and abuses the animal, the donkey unbelievably talks!
“…The angel of the Lord stood in the road to oppose him. Balaam was riding on his donkey, and his two servants were with him. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, it turned off the road into a field. Balaam beat it to get it back on the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path through the vineyards, with walls on both sides. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it pressed close to the wall, crushing Balaam’s foot against it. So he beat the donkey again. Then the angel of the Lord moved on ahead and stood in a narrow place where there was no room to turn, either to the right or to the left. When the donkey saw the angel of the Lord, it lay down under Balaam, and he was angry and beat it with his staff. Then the Lord opened the donkey’s mouth, and it said to Balaam, ‘What have I done to you to make you beat me these three times?’ Balaam answered the donkey, ‘You have made a fool of me! If only I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.’ The donkey said to Balaam, ‘Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?’ ‘No,’ he said. Then the Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road with his sword drawn. So he bowed low and fell facedown…” (Numbers 22:22-31)
For a magician who claims to cast spells and curses, it seems odd that Balaam is unable to see this angel right in his path. It is even more odd that the donkey is able to see God’s divine messenger, but Balaam is not. Ramban clarifies that because God had to uncover Balaam’s eyes, this must mean that he was not a prophet. Rashi though understands the donkey’s ability to see this angel and Balaam inability to do so as something deeper. Rashi comments that the donkey was able to see and Balaam wasn’t because God gives animals the ability to see more than human beings. He concludes that humans can’t see the angels among us because we fear that which may harm us. I believe this is teaching that some in society try to brainwash us into fearing those who are different than us. Some try to convince us that they are dangerous, or as President Trump shamefully propagates: they are rapists, drug dealers, gang members, and murderers. Animals though, without being influenced by bigotry and discrimination, are able to see the divinity and holiness of all.
A little over a week ago, ProPublica released an audio recording of children separated from their families, crying out alone in these detention centers. You could hear the children crying out again and again: “Mami! Papá!” And then you hear a border patrol agent laugh as he refers to the cries as an orchestra, suggesting that the only thing missing is a conductor. Because when you are taught to fear something, or someone, when you have a trickle down xenophobia that demands the separation of families and the incarceration of children, we – these border agents, our government, and many in society – fear even children when they enter our country. Like Balaam, they then can’t see God standing right there in front of them. They cannot see the divine spark calling out for their parents. And if we cannot see God in the eyes of our children, then we will stop seeing God in this world.
At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the tyrant Pharaoh also demanded the separation of children from their parents. Pharaoh directed midwives to separate newborns from their parents, even going as far as to kill the newborn baby boys. But two midwives, Shifra and Puah, stood up and refused. They said no. They were not leaders of a revolution or resistance. They were the members of society who refused to ignore and execute the discriminatory policies being implemented. They refused to be silent. They refused to be complacent. They saw the angel standing right there in front of them in the eyes of those children when Pharaoh could not – that same angel that Balaam could not see, that ICE cannot see, that the President cannot see, that, as a result, far too many in our country refuse to see. We must be like Shifra and Puah and fight for these children, and their families. Sometimes it takes a talking donkey – or spending Shabbat protesting with thousands – to teach us how to see God’s presence within each other.
-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky