Tag Archives: control

What Does Your Donkey See?

We often think of the Torah as being only told from the perspective of Moses, who is held by many traditions to be the sole author of the book. This week, though, the focus of the Torah shifts away from the Israelites and Moses to a completely different character. We’re given a totally different kind of fable, focused entirely on God’s interaction with non-Israelites. Balaam, an Ammonite prophet, is summoned by the Balak, the king of the Moabites for which this Torah portion is named (Num 22:2-25:9), to help him with his Israelite infestation. In fact, Balak describes this huge migratory group of Israelites as insects as he sends his best advisors and prophets to ask Balaam to curse the people of Israel. Balaam attempts to say no, as God informs him immediately that he will fail in any attempt to curse the Israelites, but Balak and his messengers will not take no for an answer.

This leads to Balaam saddling up his trusty donkey which he rides out to the mountain above the Israelites. As he ventures forth to cast his hex on the unwitting Israelite masses, he is confronted by an angel of God who is brandishing a sword which stops the donkey in its tracks. Unfortunately for Balaam, this angel is visible only to the donkey. Balaam beats his donkey three times, trying to get it to continue forward towards the angel, and eventually God makes the donkey speak to Balaam. They have a very interesting conversation:

Num. 22:28 The donkey said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”

Num. 22:29 Balaam said to the donkey, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.”

Num. 22:30 The donkey 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 thus to you?” And he answered, “No.”

The most striking part of this exchange is that Balaam is apparently unfazed by the fact that his donkey is suddenly speaking to him. This animal that he has trusted as his mode of transportation for however long has all of a sudden both decided to stop carrying him, and to begin speaking. The message that the donkey conveys is central to the entire portion. Balaam sees the donkey behaving strangely, and instead of trusting the animal he has been riding for quite a long time, he believes she has all of a sudden decided to stop obeying him.

I think that many parts of our lives that we take for granted often get relegated to the role of Balaam’s donkey. Most of us have aspects of our lives, be they our body functioning healthily, our family supporting us, or our minds being able to process and effectively solve problems, that we just assume will work the same as they always have. But when something goes wrong, or they don’t do exactly what we expect, we either lose it completely or keep trying to force the issue. We see this theme expanded all the more when Balak forces the issue with Balaam.

Balaam attempts  to dodge out of the task assigned to him by Balak since the beginning of the story, as he knows that God will not curse the Israelites. But Balak refuses to take his word for it. One would assume that if you were hiring someone for their prophetic prowess you would accept it when they told you that the deity you’re asking them to gain favor with is telling them no. Instead, Balak assumes that with enough bribery, Balaam will just do it. So, similar to Balaam striking his donkey three times, Balak pushes Balaam to curse the Israelites three times from on top of a mountain overlooking their camp. Each time, Balaam shouts more pronounced and powerful blessing over the Israelites in place of the curse. After the third time, they both give up and walk away.

So what are we to learn from this fable-like story? Although the most simple reading is that God has power over every nation, not just the Israelites, and this is how he exercises it to the Israelites’ advantage, that could have been conveyed in a much simpler way. I think that this is simply a universal story, as all fables are supposed to be, pointing out a pretty simple truth. Balaam, when confronted with a change in the behavior of a usually consistent and reliable facet of his life, becomes angry and violent. He implicitly assumes that the donkey is misbehaving for the sake of misbehaving. Similarly, Balak implicitly assumes that Balaam is attempting to avoid doing the job he is being tasked because he wants to. Instead of either of these men assuming that their employee has good reason to be behaving in a way not exactly to his liking, they both leap to the conclusion that their subordinate is being insubordinate.

This lesson can be applied to many things in our lives. Sure, it acts pretty analogously to work environments where we might have similar interactions with people. But it also works with other factors in our lives that slip out of our control. Sometimes even our most powerful desires and efforts for something to work a certain way, or for an event to unfold in a specific manner, will be stymied by forces unknown to us. Our otherwise reliable resources and methods sometimes simply stop dead in their tracks, refuse to continue forward, or even cause the exact opposite of what we intend. It is our instinctual reaction to get angry, or to keep trying the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. Well, one wise old Jew once said that this endless recursion into the same behavior expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And I’m pretty sure getting angry and reacting violently like Balaam did is borderline insane too. So what would have been a better reaction? Had either Balaam or Balak stopped to think about what they were asking of their subordinate, or maybe considered that the individual refusing to do the task may have very good reason to not do it, they could have avoided some pretty deep embarrassment.

If we are to learn one thing from this portion, let it be that we must make our judgments slowly, listen to those around us carefully, and consider what those people or things that we have trusted in the past might be trying to tell us by behaving differently than expected. Sometimes these undesired behaviors are shielding us from a fate unseen, but much worse.

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Jealousy and Control

This week I was given the opportunity to lead an adult Torah study class. This class meets weekly to go over the Torah portion of the week, and is usually led by a rabbi in the congregation, but every so often I’m asked to stand in for him. The group is made up predominantly of senior women, a few senior men, and a few middle-aged men and women. The rareness of my interaction with the senior crowd makes it pretty uncomfortable for me to lead the class sometimes, though, as it seems both impudent and imprudent to attempt to correct or guide people so obviously my superiors in age. It takes a certain finesse and a very light touch to reign conversations in or to focus the discussion back onto the text when it appears that the strand of discussion isn’t leading anywhere fruitful. This wasn’t needed at all when we got into the sotah ritual.

The sotah ritual is a strange, archaic and seemingly magic-based practice that is alien to the Torah. To boil it down into a sentence, if a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating he can take his wife to the priests who will publicly shame her and make her drink a mixture of water and dirt from the Tabernacle floor as a trial by ordeal. According to the text if the woman is guilty she will become barren or possibly miscarry, and if she is innocent she will be made more fertile. I expected this topic to be wildly uncomfortable for me to discuss with a room of something like 20 women and two other men (the other men were conspicuously silent throughout), but instead it was just extremely interesting.

In particular, there was a dialogue going on between two of the women, one who must be in her 80s, and one who looked to be in her late 30s or early 40s. The woman in her 80s, a firebrand that always speaks very passionately about equality, individual rights and empowerment, and is always deeply concerned with empathy and morality, spoke about the nature of adultery. I’m still not quite certain that I fully understand what she was saying, but her point of view seemed to circle around the idea that individuals have a certain level of unrestrainable impulse that leads them to do things such as cheat, accuse each other of cheating, and punish each other for cheating. She appeared to be saying that humanity must accept these as realities, and deal with them as inevitable.

In a way, the middle-aged woman was agreeing with her. She described the ritual as being a sort of sublimation of male rage and desire to exert power over women. Although she was careful to say that the sotah was clearly not a positive practice (and the practice was done away with by the leadership of the Temple during the Second Temple Period) she believed that, similar to the older woman, there are certain men who cannot restrain their impulses, and that this ritual gave them an outlet to exercise their “power” rather than being openly violent towards their wives.

One of the other women pointed out that it seemed pretty insane that these ancient Israelite men would be so deeply concerned with such an issue when they were faced with so many other problems, like wandering in the desert without any kind of real stability.  This apparent irony led us to one of the greatest points that can be drawn from this awful ritual. It is entirely clear why this would be such a popular issue in the community, and I believe it is for the same reason that domestic violence happens so often in socioeconomic areas where people have the least control over their lives.

To spin all of the reflections and reactions these women had to the ritual into one thread, the act of men exerting power over women has been a consistent outlet for anxieties related to individual disempowerment throughout human history. When people feel deeply that have little to no control over their lives, but do not recognize it for what it is, they tend to clamp down on whatever it is that they do have control over. Tyrannical bosses, abusive partners or parents, anyone with a modicum of power over others can be seen to exhibit these tendencies. As the older woman in the class pointed out, this is an almost universal tendency in humanity: passions cause us to act irrationally, and often cruelly, when we are put into tenuous and difficult situations. As the younger woman in the class pointed out as well, this ritual may very well have been an attempt at a pressure release valve for men who had the tendency to sublimate their power and control issues into something more devastating than causing the public humiliation of having to drink water and dirt.

I think the authors, priests, or whoever decided to include this ritual in the Torah included it for this reason. It shows that a person inflamed by jealousy is bound to do some kind of damage. In fact, jealousy is often used in the Torah and the Tanach to explain God’s angry reaction to the Israelites, which often led to violence against the Israelites. We all know that we have done regrettable things based on false assumptions and deep-seated control issues. I honestly believe most neuroses stem from a perceived or very real lack of control over our lives, and the incredibly anxiety caused by the lack. The sotah as a construct for ritual release of these powerful forces has been, and surely should have been, done away with. Regardless, the basis for it is still important to remember. There is a great lesson we can take from such an archaic and unsettling practice: As a moment of reflection, the next time you feel the need to knock someone else down a peg through any means, including but not limited to public humiliation as seen in the sotah, consider what is driving your desire. Is it jealousy? Or is it a need to exert what little control you have? Either way, I doubt that the mixture of dirty water you are attempting to force someone else to drink will have any real effect at all.

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