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The Talking Donkey and the Non-Jewish Priest #634

07/03/2020 04:42:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

The Talking Donkey and the Non-Jewish Priest


Earlier in my career, I became friends with someone who built houses for a living.

Like most developers, he began by constructing one house at a time, until one day, an opportunity presented itself — to build a series of seven townhouses tightly positioned around a crescent.

“I know this is a ridiculous question,” he asked, “but is there a Jewish way to build houses?”

It was not a ridiculous question. In fact, that teaching — perhaps one of Judaism’s most important — is contained in this week’s Torah portion, involving a king, a talking donkey and a non-Jewish priest.

The story — often seen as a light-hearted interlude — contains a sacred principle that resonates throughout Jewish tradition: A person’s right to privacy.

The Torah portion recounts the tale of Balak, King of Moab. He learns that the Israelites are about to pass through his territory en route to the Promised Land, and he is concerned.

Balak has heard about God’s power. Apparently, news of the Egyptian plagues, the parting of the sea, the giving of the 10 Commandments, and the Israelites' recent military conquests has spread throughout the region.

So, Balak approaches a local priest, Balaam, and attempts to induce him to curse the Israelites.

“Come then, put a curse upon this people for me, for they are too numerous for me: perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land,” says Balak. (Numbers 22:6)

Balaam attempts to avoid the issue, but ultimately agrees to travel. Riding a donkey and accompanied by some Moabite dignitaries, he approaches the Israelite camp.

God places an invisible angel in front of the donkey, which only she can see. The animal swerves off the road into a field. Balaam beats the donkey, forcing her back on course. This time, to avoid the angel, the donkey squeezes Balaam’s foot against a wall. Again, Balaam strikes the donkey

Once more, the angel blocks the path. Now, the donkey lays down, causing Balaam to hit her again.

Then, in one of the most miraculous scenes in the Torah, God "opens the ass's mouth," and she says to Balaam, “What have I ever done to you that you have beaten me three times?” (Number 22:28)

Soon after, God uncovers Balaam’s eyes. He sees the angel and eventually comprehends the awful nature of the act he was asked to commit.

When Balaam eventually arrives in the area where the Israelites are camped, his curse turns into a blessing. This blessing is so powerful that to this day, as Jews begin their morning prayers, they recite the words coined by Balaam, a non-Jewish priest.

“How fair are your tents, O Jacob. Your dwellings O Israel.” (Please click for Cantor Gustavo’s Hebrew recitation)

So what does this have to do with the building of houses?

The Talmud tells us that Balaam noticed something amazing as he gazed over the thousands of Israelite tents. He observed the way the tents were positioned. Windows did not face windows, and doors did not face doors.

That way, every family’s privacy was preserved.

Balaam divined the importance that the Torah places on individual privacy — even structuring an entire tent city so that opportunities for gossip, jealousy and eavesdropping would be kept to a minimum.

Why is this so important?

Our tradition tells us, that when we spend too much time observing, criticizing, and comparing ourselves to others — we not only demean them, but we also degrade ourselves

Rather than focusing on who we are, and what we are trying to accomplish on earth, we become obsessed with what others have and — by extension — what we do not.

And that is why, says the Talmud, Balaam was inspired to bless the Israelites, rather than curse them.

This focus on privacy has resonated throughout Jewish history.

We abhor gossip. We value confidentiality. Indeed, each of us is on a personal journey, and anything distracting us from that purpose is seen as a profound waste of time.

Centuries later, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah, (960 -1040) took the teaching to the next level. He was asked, “If someone requests another person to deliver a letter — is the carrier permitted to open it?”

Rabbi Gershom, drawing on the Jewish tradition of privacy, instituted a thousand years ago, a law prohibiting the opening of correspondence addressed to someone else.

Over time, these anti-gossip laws have matched and have expanded according to the evolving way in which we, as humans, communicate — from the telephone, to party lines, to the invention of email, texting and other Internet platforms.

Perhaps today, as we are often exposed to events which are meant to be private — whether they be next door, or beyond — do we always follow the principles that the Torah established in the desert, observed by Balaam more than 3,000 years ago?

I often ask myself, when we exchange emails, do we regard the contents as a closed letter, or as a virtual postcard — open and accessible to all? Are we honoring today, within all of our personal interactions, the Jewish value of privacy?

As Rashi (1040-1105), our greatest commentator, noted: As Jews, we initially learn these principles in our places of prayer and study, and we then extend them to our daily lives.

As for my friend the developer, he ultimately built a housing development where the windows did not directly face each other. He noted that not only did it make good business sense — but also that it comforted him that the construction of his townhouses reflected in part the biblical story of the Israelites and their tents.

This focus on privacy and confidentiality, and our national aversion to gossip and tale bearing, has never been more important than today during a time when so many misuse information to damage others.

It’s a lesson contained in this week’s Torah portion, which carries forward from ancient times to today.

How are we honoring the Jewish value of privacy?

As our tradition teaches, it is better to focus on our own behavior, than to peer into the windows of others.

For, indeed, if we are busy looking into the house of another — who is looking after our house?

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv,

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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