The Torah is full of fantastical moments – the parting of the Red Sea, a bush that burns but is not consumed, the signs and wonders we read about every year at Pesach.
One of its most supernatural moments is when the donkey of non-Israelite prophet Balaam opens its mouth and complains to Balaam about his abusive treatment.
What are we to make of this Alice In Wonderland moment, a talking, moralising donkey in the heart of the story?
In Pirkei Avot, the very oft-quoted Ethics of the Fathers, we’re told: “Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath in the twilight,” that mystical, liminal time when God had finished doing all of the work of creation, and the first Shabbat was about to begin.
Pirkei Avot goes on to tell us that, at this magical moment, 10 things that would later be very important for the history of the Jewish people came into being.
Among them is the well with which Miriam would sustain the Jewish people in the desert (and the manna too), the rainbow God paints in the sky for Noah after the flood, the rod Moses would need to part the Red Sea, the tablets of the Covenant themselves and even “the mouth of the female donkey” that would later speak to Balaam.
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This is the rabbinic way of acknowledging how important all these sorts of supernatural moments would later be in our central stories… and a way of acknowledging how outside regular physics they would all be as well.
They are so fantastical, the Midrash here is telling us, that they could only come into being at this magical, twilight time.
So while we may find Balaam’s donkey fantastical, so too does the Jewish tradition itself.
- Rabbi Leah Jordan is Liberal Judaism’s student chaplain