What do Winnie the Pooh, Chronicles of Narnia, Shrek, Pinocchio, and Grimms Fairy Tales have in common?
A talking donkey. Fairy tales seem to have their fair share of them (bad pun intended).
Now while fairy tales serve a purpose and can be used to teach lessons, they can also be complete nonsense. But there was one, only one, actual talking donkey in human history. We would be far better off if we had paid attention to that talking donkey and the important lesson it teaches us.
In this week’s Torah portion, the prophet Bilaam is hired to curse the Jewish people. He saddles his loyal donkey and starts his journey. God is angered, and an angel of mercy is sent to block Bilaam’s path, to save him from this tragic error. The problem is that Bilaam doesn’t see the angel, but his donkey does and moves away. Bilaam repeatedly hits the donkey, to no avail, and the donkey crouches under Bilaam and refuses to move. Bilaam continues to strike it.
And then it happens – “God opened the mouth of the donkey, and it says to Bilaam, ’Why do you continue to hit me? Have I not been your loyal donkey for years? Have I ever done you wrong? Don’t you think I am acting like this for a reason?’”
God then opens Bilaam’s eyes, and he sees the angel. To his great shame, he realizes that with all his brilliance and power of prophecy, he was correctly reprimanded by a donkey – the donkey saw what he couldn’t see.
The Rabbis tell us that this miraculous donkey was created at the very beginning of time to serve this purpose, and when its time came, it did its job masterfully.
And then it immediately dies.
You might think that it died because it had served its purpose and was no longer needed. On the other hand, why not give it longer life as a reward for carrying out its task? Or why not keep it around as a sign and reminder of the great miracle that occurred?
The Rabbis teach that it died for one reason only – so as not to be a cause of shame to Bilaam. If left alive, it would be ongoing reminder of Bilaam’s epic fail, of his being outsmarted by a donkey. God had mercy on Bilaam’s dignity. No donkey that would remind him, or allow others to remind him, of his moment of shame would be allowed to live. Even Bilaam the sinner deserved dignity.
The Torah lesson is obvious. Everyone messes up sometimes, and we try to forget those moments. But some people have the habit of bringing up failure of others every time they can. “Remember when you . . . that was pretty funny.” Maybe to the other person it was amusing, but not for the one who messed up.
Others video embarrassing moments and broadcast them to the world on WhatsApp or Twitter. The Torah harshly condemns such behavior. To the contrary, if you see someone fail, downplay it, make believe you didn’t see it, and delete the evidence.
Just as God “deleted” the donkey.
Rabbi Yitzchok Oratz is the Rabbi and Director of the Monmouth Torah Links community. Shortly after receiving his semicha (rabbinic ordination) from Bais Medrash Govoha, the famed Lakewood Yeshiva, Rabbi Oratz, along with his wife Toby and family, moved to Marlboro, NJ where they co-founded the MTL community in 2001. Aside for his “Devar on the Par” that he writes for MTL, his writings have also been published on Aish, Times of Israel, Seforim Blog, Hakira, and in various Rabbinic journals. Rabbi Oratz looks forward to continuing teaching Torah in a way that is timely and timeless, and sharing meaningful Jewish experiences with the amazing MTL community.