Sunday, July 1, 2012

A Conversation with Balaam's Donkey

Leonard: My next guest is currently co-starring in the Broadway musical, “Balaam, (Don’t) Curse the Jews!” I’m very pleased to welcome Balaam’s Donkey to our show. Hello.

Donkey: Hi, Leonard.

Leonard: Congratulations on being chosen to play this part. You’re basically reprising your role as Balaam the soothsayer’s talking donkey in the Biblical story Balak. Is the musical faithful to the original as you experienced it?

Donkey: Well, you know, the parts about me rescuing the children from the burning tower and leading the Israelites into battle with my rousing oratory – for some reason those were left out.

Leonard: Really. I read the Torah portion to prepare for this interview, and I don’t recall anything like that.

Donkey: Oh, yeah? Are you sure? Maybe I’m remembering it differently.

Leonard: Why don’t you give us an overview of the story. That way we can make sure we’re both on the same page.

Donkey: It’s been called “a cautionary tale of one man’s attempt to bend G-d’s will to his own – with a talking donkey.”

Leonard: Who wrote that? One of the ancient Hebrew commentators?

Donkey: No, Ben Brantley of the New York Times. He was reviewing the musical. Let’s see … Balak was the king of Moab, one of the superpowers at the time. He summoned Balaam, a seer with powers of prophecy rivaling those of Moses, to curse the nation of Israel.

Leonard: Why did Balak want to curse the Jews? Did they break his window?

Donkey: No, Israel had just annihilated the two biggest superpowers, and Balak was terrified. He thought cursing the Jews would weaken them, and then he’d be able to defeat them militarily. So he sent his ministers to Balaam to request his cursing services. Balaam told them to wait overnight: he needed to see what G-d had to say about it first.

Leonard: Did they really have overnight delivery then?

Donkey: I’m afraid not, Leonard. G-d appeared to Balaam only at night.

Leonard: And G-d gave the cursing a thumbs up “Like”?

Donkey: Not exactly. He laid down three unambiguous orders: 1) don’t go with the men to Balak’s court; 2) don’t curse the Jews; and 3) don’t bless them, either, because they’re already blessed.

Leonard: So I guess Balaam told the ministers G-d didn't want him to curse Israel.

Donkey: Not exactly. He led the ministers to believe that the reason he couldn’t travel with them was not because G-d wouldn't allow him to curse the Jews but because they, the ministers, weren’t prominent enough.

Leonard: Were these UN officials?

Donkey: They were real ministers. They reported Balaam’s demand, and the king simply sent another delegation of higher rank. Balaam made them wait overnight again, and this time G-d told him: “OK, big shot, go already. But you better not try any cursing.”

Leonard: So now we come to your scene.

Donkey: That’s right. We’re riding down the road on our way to the King and all of a sudden I see an angel standing there with a drawn sword. So I turn off the road into a field. The angel appears twice more, each time blocking my path. Before I’m forced to stop, I unavoidably cause Balaam’s leg to be pressed against a wall.

Leonard: Balaam must not have been too happy about all that.

Donkey: He struck me hard each time I strayed. So I said, "What have I done to you that you strike me these three times?" He answered that I had embarrassed him before the ministers and that if he had had a sword he would have killed me.

Leonard: Really, he threatened to kill you? What was it like working for him?

Donkey: He wasn’t exactly the nicest guy in the world. He’d do things like hide my oat bag.

Leonard: How do you find performing with Balaam all these years later?

Donkey: We have a lot more respect for each other now. To be safe, though, I keep my oat bag in my briefcase.

Leonard: So what happened in the end with Balaam and the Jews?

Donkey: G-d, through the angel, allowed Balaam to travel on to King Balak. Balaam blessed the Jews. And it was quite a blessing. The Mah Tovu prayer that’s said every morning was taken from the blessing. To top it off, he foretold the coming of Mashiach. It’s one of only three places in the Five Books of Moses that alludes to his arrival.

Leonard: Why didn’t the Jews sign him up after that? He sounds like a valuable asset.

Donkey: He really hated the Jews, Leonard. He sought their destruction by other means.

Leonard: So what do we learn from this story?

Donkey: One thing I took away from the experience, Leonard, is a perspective on free will. G-d makes known his will, but he also allows people to choose their own way. G-d made a donkey talk – that’s me – and an angel materialize to persuade Balaam to turn back from his path of defiance. He didn’t want to punish Balaam immediately; he gave him chances.

Leonard: Now you’re telling the story on the Great White Way. Musicals, though, don’t run forever. What would you like to do next?

Donkey: I’d like to try my hand at talk radio. I can see myself doing a morning sports show – call it “Dave and the Donkey.” He’d be the crazy-whacky guy. I’d be the cerebral one with the expert analysis of the Red Zone Defense and the intricate labor negotiations.

Leonard: I think that would suit you real well, Donkey. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Donkey: My pleasure, Leonard.

Leonard: That’s our show for today. Be sure to join me tomorrow when my guests will include a certain talkative snake, who tries to defend himself in a new autobiography …

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