Talking Animals?

This past Shabbat, I began my derasha with a TV trivia question: How did the director of the old “Mr. Ed” show get the horse to move its lips?

Before the computer wizardry of Forrest Gump, how did they manipulate the lips of the talking horse?

A confession: Until now, I had believed that the placement of peanut butter in Ed’s mouth was the secret; this was the explanation I presented to the congregation on Shabbat. But as I prepared to write  this blog post, I investigated further, and found that the peanut butter story was fabricated by Director Alan Young. Recently, he changed his tune, explaining that it was in fact a nylon thread in Mr. Ed’s mouth that got the horse talking. Eventually, Mr. Ed apparently learned to move his lips on cue when the trainer touched his hoof!

When you mention Perashat Balak to the average person, they fondly recall it as the Torah portion in which a donkey talks. At first blush, the story of Bilaam and the donkey has a Disney-like, cartoonish quality to it. Now, although the Torah’s narratives even appeal to children, the profound depth of the episode has long been the subject of our classic commentaries.

In his “Tal Hermon”, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner recalls some early psychological experiments involving monkeys. Specifically, he refers us to the work of Masserman and Wechkin: In a 1964 study,15 rhesus monkeys were trained to get food by pulling chains. The monkeys quickly learned that one chain delivered twice as much food than the other. But then the rules changed. If a monkey pulled the chain associated with the bigger reward, another “bystander” monkey received an electric shock. After seeing this occur, ten of the monkeys switched their preferences to the chain associated with the lesser food reward. Two other monkeys stopped pulling either chain—preferring to starve rather than see another monkey in pain.

Rav Aviner points to this as evidence of a very basic “mussar” or ethical element within animals. This quality is elucidated by the prophet Yeshaya (Isaiah 1:3) as he bemoans the ingratitude of the Jewish people: “Even an ox knows its owner, and a donkey recognizes its master’s care–but Israel doesn’t know its master.”

As Bilaam sets out on his journey to curse the Israelites, his donkey seems disobedient. First, she turns off course, then she presses Bilaam’s leg against a fence; finally, she crouches down under Bilaam and refuses to budge. Each step of the way, the beast is responding to her vision of Hashem’s angel obstructing the path. In response to each act of disobedience, Bilaam strikes the animal. At this point, Hashem “opens the donkey’s mouth” – and it delivers a full-fledged “Mussar lesson” to Bilaam:

“What have I done to you, that justifies you having hit me three times?”
“Am not I your donkey, upon which you have ridden your whole life until today? Did I ever let you down?”

The two questions are related: “Maybe there was a specific reason that prompted me to to behave this way? Why did you strike me without taking that into consideration? Secondly, given my faithfulness to you to this point, you should have given me the benefit of the doubt!”

The animal exhibits a higher sense of basic ethics than Bilaam. It sees the angel – which represents the Divine force of ethics and mussar in the world – which Bilaam, for all of his talent and sophistication, can simply not perceive. Once Bilaam admits that the donkey had in fact, never ‘done him wrong’, he is able to “see the angel”; he begins to have an elementary grasp of the lesson communicated by his donkey. This is followed by a harsh rebuke of Bilaam by the angel, and Bilaam finally admits חטאתי – “I have sinned….”

Rav Aviner’s approach dovetails nicely with a puzzling comment by Rashi. The donkey refers to Bilaam’s three beatings as שלש רגלים. Rashi, based on the midrash, explains that the donkey is critiquing Bilaam for attempting to eradicate the Jewish people, who observe the three pilgrimage festivals. The word “regalim” in Hebrew can simply mean “times” (Bilaam strikes the animal three times); alternatively, it can be a veiled reference to the Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot festivals, when the Jewish people traditionally traveled en masse to Jerusalem.

What’s the connection between the three festivals and Bilaam’s behavior?

The Jewish trek to Jerusalem is an expression of appreciation for the Exodus from Egypt, the receiving of the Torah, and the Divine protection in the desert during our 40 years of wandering. Jewish families thronged to the holy city to remind themselves of their dependence on G-d and His involvement in their lives.

Basic gratitude!

The beleaugered beast of the Bilaam narrative tells her master that he has no hope of vanquishing a people whose “specialty” is the ongoing refinement of their individual and national character.

Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, in his introduction to Sefer Bereshit, notes that an intrustion of baseless hatred and a crisis of character led to the destruction of the Second Temple. If ethical refinement is the Jewish specialty, failing to live up to our potential is a true crisis.

Today is the 17th of Tamuz, a time for each of us to reflect on how we can work to refine those qaulities and bring about our long-awaited redemption….

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