July 9, 2008
The power of speech
Parshat Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9)
The Torah records that the human being was the final item created by God. But the Mishna (Avot 5:8) proposes that a variety of mysterious things were actually created just a little bit later.
As the sixth day was ending, but not quite over, and as Shabbat was arriving, but had not yet begun, God created those things that would be a part of the natural world -- but would later defy its rules. The manna, the staff with which Moshe would divide the sea, and the rock that would bring forth water in the desert were all created at the dusk of creation. Also created at that time was the mouth of Bilaam's donkey, which would startlingly bring forth words and sentences.
The Mishna's inclusion of the donkey's mouth in the mysterious last moments of creation is not surprising. The donkey's speech is a mighty strange phenomenon. At the same time though, Bilaam himself, whom we would expect would be the most startled of all, seems unfazed as he engages his four-legged interlocutor. When the donkey asks Bilaam whether he has any reason to believe that his faithful donkey would deliberately harm him, Bilaam simply, calmly answers, "No."
Why isn't Bilaam freaked out? How is it that he accepts the donkey's speech with such equanimity?
An answer begins to come to mind when we consider the nature of Bilaam's profession. He is a prophet (although apparently a for-profit prophet). His spends his days waiting for God to inspire him to speak. Bilaam, more than most people, understands that it is God who opens the mouth of the mute. He knows from acute daily experience that the power of speech is a Divine gift. As bizarre as it surely would have seemed to you or me, the donkey's speech was consistent with Bilaam's understanding and experience of speech. Speech is a gift that God endows. Why not to a donkey if that is His will?
Indeed, look closely at the Torah's preface to the donkey's utterance: "And God opened the mouth of the donkey" (Numbers 22:28). This description is not only to help us -- the readers -- understand how this happened. It is also there so we can place the donkey's speech into the context in which Bilaam the prophet experienced it, and thus not be surprised that Bilaam is not surprised.
The ancient targum (Aramaic biblical interpretation) of Jonathan Ben Uziel reinforces this notion about the nature of speech in a strikingly direct fashion. The familiar verse in Genesis 2:7 is commonly (and accurately) translated as: "And the Lord God formed the human from the dust of the earth, blew into his nose the breath of life, and thus the human became a living being."
But the targum renders the second half of the verse as follows: "... and God blew into the human's nose the breath of life, and with this breath the human became a creature of speech." Speech, he asserts, is a direct and precious gift from God.
With even a little bit of reflection, we can begin to appreciate this idea. In its grandest forms, speech is the Divine gift which enabled Moshe to say to Pharaoh, "Let my people go," and the gift which enables us, to this day, to protest injustice and decry evil. It is the Divine gift through which we are able to express love, shared hopes and communicate our vision to others.
But both the story of Bilaam and Targum Jonathan instruct us to see beyond the grand, deep, transformative moments of speech and realize that each and every time we speak, we are taking advantage of a Divine gift. In an elevator, on the checkout line, when asking our child to do her homework, when responding to a person looking for a handout, we are deploying this Divine gift that is within us. And as such, every time we open our mouths we are either affirming God's decision to entrust us with this power, or we are proving ourselves -- for that moment -- unworthy and unappreciative of it.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach taught that a person should pray before each time they open their mouths. In light of the awful damage we can cause with speech, or the great blessing we can bestow with it, this is surely not a bad idea. But a more practical suggestion perhaps would be to just meditate for a split-second on the image of Bilaam's donkey, or on Targum Jonathan, "and with [God's] breath the human became a creature of speech."
Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B'nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.