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Parsha Chukas

06/28/2018 09:12:05 PM


While the protagonist of Parshas Balak is undoubtedly the character Billam, his talking donkey is not far behind in capturing the essence of the miraculous chain of events and the true nature of the power of speech.  As the Mishna in Avos teaches that this bizarre and uncanny creation of a talking donkey was made at the final moments of the six days of Creation, we should relate to the talking donkey as a vital part of Billam’s story that holds an unforgettable lesson for us beyond the story.  As succinctly summed up by the Midrash Rabba, the donkey was exhibiting that speech is a gift from God who grants us the ability to speak, and we should interpret Billam’s inability to curse the Jews despite his burning passion to do so as God tweaking his speech powers much as he inversely performed for the donkey.  There is a fascinating S’forno who observes a subtlety in the language of the Pasuk, “And God opened the donkey’s mouth,” to be comparable to the request of Dovid Hamlech that we say before the Amida service- “God, open my lips so they can utter your praise.”  As the literal subtlety in Dovid’s prayer suggests, God opens our lips to allow our speech to emerge much in the same way that he opened the donkey’s mouth.  It seems strange, however, to compare the miraculous opening of the donkey’s mouth, a totally unnatural occurrence, to the constant and innate human quality of speech.  What does the S’frono mean to convey?

R’ Yeruchim Levovitz explains the phrase of “opening the mouth” used in context of the donkey to indicate that the exception of the talking donkey was not one of talent or basic ability, but rather of actualizing an ability in bringing to life an otherwise dormant skill.  While we would have thought that animals do not possess the power of speech, R’ Yeruchum says the wording of “opening the mouth” reveals that animals can also, theoretically, speak, and it is just that they never “open their mouths” to express this abstract skill.  Perhaps it can be likened to the concept of the Maslow pyramid, the idea that sociological needs, safety, love, and self-actualization are predicated upon the hierarchies of a pyramid, where self-actualization remains as the pinnacle and out of reach for one who is stuck on the levels of physical needs, safety, or love.  Animals can talk, but their inability to get past the basic levels of the pyramid leave them with the mouths shut and their skills dormant.  Man’s specialty in being a communicator is not that he is blessed with another skill, but rather the specialty is the ability to actualize and constantly build up to the top of the pyramid. 

The Amida service is an illustration for the sharp difference between knowing how to talk and knowing how to self-actualize through talking.  One definitely can know how to say the words of Shemone Esrei and feel secure in his ability to articulate the words, but the Tefilla to God to “open the lips” means a request that one can self-actualize through saying the words.  Due to familiarity and regularity by which the words are said, it is almost inevitable to fall back to “cruise-control” where ingrained ability takes over and ability is not being transferred to novel actualization.  Every new feeling of emotion and every new appreciation for the words makes that saying the words will create a different self-actualization and new-found growth.  Life is a cycle of endless opportunities and chances, some of which look different every day, and some of which seem to be packaged in the same form every day.  “God open my lips” is our way of asking God to help us find new actualization in the same package and not to allow the constant picture to seem stale and flat before us.  We look to our human spirit not to find different skills in our arsenal, but rather to see how we can use our skills in meaningful ways to grow further in the inexorable ladder of life.  

Thu, May 28 2020 5 Sivan 5780