The Seer Who Would Not See
I believe in prophecy.
Some folks see things not everybody can see.
And, once in a while, they pass the secret along to
you and me.
—Steve Earle, “God is God”
Anyone who is an aficionado of late night comedy shows with a strong dose of political and social satire such as Saturday Night Live or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver knows full well that comedy can be a very serious matter indeed. But can sacred narratives of the Torah be comedic? And if so, should we take that comedy seriously?
Consider the case of the gentile prophet Balaam and his talking ass in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. Is there a more absurd encounter in the entire Bible? Undoubtedly concerned that skeptics would use this episode to undermine the credibility of the entire religious corpus, our sages and scholars have worked overtime to rationalize this story and explain away its fairy tale quality.
In Pirkei Avot, we are taught that the mouth of the ass in the Balaam story was created on the Sabbath eve of Creation (Avot 5: 6). According to the commentary Tiferet Israel, this mishnah comes to teach us that God invested creation with the power to bring forth this and other wonders at the appropriate time. In other words, this miracle and others that we read about or even experience in life are not beyond nature, but in fact they are natural phenomena that only appear at particularly propitious times.
Maimonides—the rationalist philosopher par excellence—was clearly dissatisfied with this explanation. In his Guide for the Perplexed (II.42), he argued that the ass did not really speak at all but rather was seen in a dream. The Italian biblical commentator S.D. Luzzatto offers a different but equally rational explanation. Like Maimonides, Luzzatto denied that the ass actually spoke words. Instead, when Balaam beat the animal for not moving forward, the ass made plaintive sounds that implied protests. Balaam interpreted the braying as objections to the abuse he was heaping on the beast and he responded in words much as we might speak to a beloved dog or cat.
But what if the Biblical author does not want us to rationalize the story away but rather, like a great comedy sketch, asks us to marvel at its ingenuity and then take away a serious message?
As Robert Alter points out in The Art of Biblical Narrative (105), the very first word of the Balaam story is the verb “to see” (Num. 22:2), and that verb, with its notions of vision and perception, creates the unifying structure of this story. Balak, king of the Moabites, chooses Balaam to curse the Israelites because Balaam is considered the preeminent seer of his day. So it is a great irony that this seer cannot see that he has no power to curse a people whom God wants blessed. This point is driven home with satirical humor when Balaam rides off on his ass at Balak’s insistence to curse the Children of Israel. On the way, an angel brandishing a sword stands in the way of the ass and will not let it or its rider pass (v. 23). The animal can see the angel, but the seer cannot see it. When Balaam proceeds to beat the animal, God opens up its mouth so the ass can protest with speech. Balaam responds that “If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you” (v. 29)—further irony because the angel standing right in front of him has a sword in his hand, but Balaam, the great seer, cannot see it. Only when God “uncovered Balaam’s eyes” does Balaam see the angel and repent for mistreating his animal (vv. 31–35).
This story presents high comedy with a stinging rebuke. Balaam had awesome powers of prophecy (the Midrash [Sifrei Devarim 357:40] compares his prophetic gifts to those of Moses) but he could not see that those powers were useless unless they were employed for good purpose. Perhaps the lesson here is that prophecy is not a gift bestowed on a chosen few but rather an inchoate ability that many possess to see what others refuse to acknowledge.
Years ago when Harlem was one of the poorest and most neglected parts of New York City, I used to ride the subway to JTS, which is only a few blocks south of Harlem. On the subway walls were posters that read: “When you get to 125th Street, look out the window. Give a damn.” Those posters reminded me of the lyrics written by Paul Simon: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”
The absurd story of Balaam’s ass comes to teach us this very serious point: we must take the blinders from our eyes, perceive the truth no matter how discomforting, and then use our vision to turn curses into blessings.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).