Yom Sheini, 18 Av 5779
Monday, 19 August 2019
Parashat Balak 5775

3rd July 2015 - Cantor Gershon Silins

For many years, I’ve read The New Yorker, a magazine of literature and the arts, which is famous for its cartoons, which are commentaries on the social and political issues of the day, as well as being funny. I was looking at a very old issue a few months ago, and I realized that I could no longer figure out why the cartoons were funny, though I’m sure I thought they were when I first read them. Culture can be very tenacious, but humour is often quite evanescent. We all laugh, but the things that we think are funny change over time. How would a funny story in the Torah sound to us today? Would we get the joke?

This week’s Torah portion, Balak, has many passages that are difficult to make sense of, but for our sages, the most perplexing part of it is the talking donkey, an event that they thought could only be some species of miracle. In early rabbinic commentary, this miracle is one of the special acts of creation that took place “on the Sabbath eve at twilight,” which was taken to mean that at the beginning of creation, conditions were prepared so that these miraculous events would occur at the necessary point in Biblical history. Maimonides suggests that what is described in our portion was a prophetic vision, and the animal never actually spoke to Balaam; thus, he preserved the natural order of things while still not contradicting the Torah. Nachmanides describes large scale historic miracles that everyone sees, like the parting of the Sea of Reeds to let the Children of Israel pass, but also small, hidden ones; but says that the small ones are, if anything, more important. They remind us that all the events described in the Torah are miraculous because their presence in the Torah story demonstrates that God is in control of all of Jewish history, if we would but see it. Even so, the tale of Balaam is uncomfortable because it seems to lend credibility to the magical power attributed to Balaam. If he had the power to bless and curse, and an angel appeared to him (as happens in the story), and his donkey spoke to him, then perhaps there is magic after all, and this magician had the power to invoke it. It’s all very serious, and hard to make sense of.

As I was reading the story of Balaam’s donkey, it occurred to me that (whatever else it might be) this story is funny. A magician who is hired to curse our people but who, even with amazing effort and multiple attempts, cannot do it. On his way to another attempt, his donkey disobeys – not only can’t Balaam do the magic he was hired to do, he cannot even control his donkey. And finally, Balaam is such a dunce that his donkey is wiser than he is. It opens up its mouth to tell him that there’s an angel with a sword blocking their way that Balaam can’t see, an angel that when he finally does see it, lets Balaam know that it would sooner have killed him than the donkey. I think that when our people heard this story, they couldn’t stop laughing.

Jewish humour is legendary, and it must have existed in Biblical times as well. Life was tough, food and water scarce, and their enemies were strong and determined. What better time could there have been for comedy? Through all the difficulties that the Children of Israel had to endure in their wanderings, they must occasionally have sat around a campfire laughing their heads off.

In the past week, we’ve seen wonderful, uplifting news from the United States, where Obamacare was preserved and where gay marriage was affirmed for that entire country. And yet, during this same week, we’ve witnessed scenes of murderous racist violence against African Americans in the United States, and murderous attacks in Tunisia, France and Kuwait. At first, I was surprised that the television comedians would be able to joke about these terrible things. And then I thought about the talking donkey and the clumsy magician, and I realized that laughter at difficult times is what helps us recall what it means to be human.