In these days of terrible heat... well not that pathetic for the area to tell the truth, but anyway we may feel a sort of natural compassion for animals. Jerusalem is full of pregnant cats, some are so lucky to have a permanent residence near one, two or more restaurants and coffee-shops, while others sniff around as good street NFA pets where they might get some nice bones or grains. During summertime, it is a real mitzvah to feed homeless animals. It is nice to see along the ways - inside the Old City - but also in many other places, pieces of bread. Spontaneous groups or individuals do gather for informal catering system allowing the pigeons, other birds or dogs to get even fresh meat.
The mitzvah may apparently not be founded on the same mitzvot reference. In the Old City, the Christian spirit might firstly consider it is just normal to feed animals. Then, it somehow tracks back to Jesus' remark: "Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your Heavenly Father feeds them… not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them." (Matthew 6:25-34).
As regards the Jewish part, it is normal to be kind with animals and the commandment that prohibits to torn a limb from a living animal shows a great respect. There can be a lot of personal fondness or emotional frustration, loneliness involved in such behaviors. I often heard when listening to some of these small groups how the Shoah background was present in terms of absence of care, humanity and just be given simple basic food. At the top of the showing, at the present, is the wide development of these high and longhair puddles or greyhounds if not some huskies. That's quite a real acculturating process that lines with the general aliyah movement! I know a Chinese dog from Russia that only eats rice and really developed a ghetto spirit: totally scared by any cat or mouse.
Local animals are more donkeys and camels. Camels show for a terribly short tours for children and reckless grownups. The tour is frankly you get up and down the camel, smile at the beast and walk a few meters and bye…
But camels are sweet and cute: they can store liters of water to quench their thirst. We don't have vultures... maybe safer! They swallow corpses like the Mazdean/Zoroastrian towers of death at Bombay. The Jewish tradition has always praised the people who took care of creatures: Jews should remember that they are a nation of shepherds and flock care-takers.
David was the last and forgotten son gone somewhere to graze the lambs and ewes... He was the right one to reign as a king. Rebekkah is the model of the nice girl who gave waters to Eliezer's camels. This was the good sign to become Itzchak's wife. Jews should be, by nature, "rachamim bney HaRachamim - compassionate as they are the children of the Merciful God" (Beitzah 32b).
Thus, the Jewish ethics towards animals is summed up in this verse: "The righteous respects the life (nefesh) of his beasts" (Proverbs 12:10). Still, the Talmud accounts how some famous Sages could be rude with their beasts, e.g. Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi who is blamed for not having shown compassion towards a calf. Curiously, it is more humane to respect a calf that will be slaughtered than to put down insightful verses of the Mishnah.
This totally relates to the parshat hashavua or reading portion of this week: “Balak” in the Book of Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2-25:9. This Gan Eden atmosphere of wonderful deer and gazelles combining charming swiftness and tenderness, love and perfect beauty plus wisdom is at the heart of the weekly reflection. To begin with, a nasty deal that should commit an idolatrous God-fearing magician called Balaam with Balak, son of Zippor.
The Moabites were alarmed that the people who had left Egypt had completely defeated the Amorites and were heading towards Moab. Thus, the best way was to consult an expert in divine affairs and to curse the Israelites so that they would either perish or be done before even trying to fight Balak.
Let’s say that there was a sort of wide range of gods and goddesses, deities who could either put a spell, a curse or a blessing on our brothers/sisters, parentage, tribe but imperatively on our enemies. This is our major life activity: how can we curse others without harming ourselves (too much)? Balak just behaved accordingly: he sent the elders of Moab to contact a good professional “magush – magician”. Because these elders were themselves versed in “ksamim beyadam – diviners, charmers having divination at hand”. “
He began to make divinations by throwing arrows and sundry objects” (Eycha Rabba 1) states that a charmer makes use of carved or chipped objects (qessem). We use the word in Modern Hebrew to say that a person is “cute”, which does imply that s/he is chipped up or cut down. There is also linked to the present use of the word “icon” as we love to have “cult characters” at the present.
As a usual paradox in the Jewish tradition, it is also said: “He who makes himself a carver, i.e. a skilful worker in the words of the Law shall finally become a leader through them” (Sanhedrin 9, 6). Old Norse “Spjall” – English: “to spell out = explain step by step” had initially this aspect of “carving” that is strictly forbidden by God’s Commandments. There is no possibility to bewitch or to attract people by enchantment in the monotheistic tradition. Not kidding, because it is evident that persuasion plays that game of “carving fascination” in our daily life.
This consists indeed in hexing, exercising witchcraft and at this stage there is a strong connection between Balak’s attitude and our ways of living and acting in the present. Let’s go on and consider the way we parade all the time with our egos; when millions of teens and “immature” adults change and enhance their trade mark look on the net. Specific sites allow them selling their images and features, contact abilities.
We can charm through photoshop and apparently overcome a damned boring loneliness. We might then ot be aware how we progressively frame ourselves into this carving of self-idolatry, maybe pushed by some irresistible compulsion. There is a constant motto and rallying war cry on the web: “This is not true – you/we/people fake, lie or hide who and what they are”. This is exactly at the core of the essential reading portion of the week.
Balaam is a diviner. He is not a believer in the One God. But he listened to God’s voice and refuse to be paid and curse the Israelites. This is meaningful because of the above quotation from Talmud Sanhedrin 9, 6: a carver instructed in the Laws’ word will become a leader, at least a true man of God. At this point, Balak sent more distinguished dignitaries who would richly reward Balaam. Again there is a heart-to-heart talk between God and Balaam who confesses the Lord and refused house, silver and gold. Then God put a sort of test (not to say a charm). “You may go with these men. But whatever I command you, that you shall do, said the Lord” (Num. 22:20). There is a subtle move to which we are pretty much accustmed as individual souls. God told Balaam to do what He will tell him to do.
Is Balaam the wicked diviner described throughout the Tradition? In particular, when scholars or so, insist to describe Balaam as parallel to Jesus, which allows disputing with Christianity. Faith in the One God never relies, by no means, on split or conflicting twisting textual irrelevant interpretations. This concerns all beliefs, but in particular the dramatic history that affected the relationships between Judaism and Christendom.
It is very difficult not to put love – i.e. pure love - on sale as a flat, a car, a cupboard, simple objects when there is no farthing left and no true trust in the Providence. The problem about Balaam is to know whether he was vainglorious (Rashi) or that he “could and shall not disobey God’s will”(Chumash and Onkelos). This should be noted as regards Balaam as a diviner. There is no specific reason to accuse him of being “vainglorious” or “seduced and attracted by wealth” which is in contradiction with the Canticle: “If man offers all his wealth for love he would be laughed to scorn/despised to the maximum” (Shir 8:7).
Balaam had an ass. Say he had a she-donkey in order to avoid misunderstanding words. During the 23rd Egyptian Dynasty (749-21) it was normal to write such legal statements as: “If you don’t agree with that decree, may a donkey copulate (fuck) with you”. We are often totally antiquities-style in our search to be trendy… Interestingly, God grew angry when He saw that Balaam was joining Balak’s emissaries.
He placed two defenders: His angel standing in the way with a sword and the she-donkey/aton. Now, does your favorite pet appears to be your best counsellor? Okay pets can bite some foreigners in between, but would your domesticated animal tell you bemamash/ for true who you really are? On the one hand, Balaam had the angel of God and he was beating the poor she-donkey that stubbornly did not want to move. Then the Lord opened the “aton’s” mouth: She said: “Why have you beaten me three times?” Balaam admitted the donkey had always served him correctly. The Lord unveiled Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel; thus he bowed down with his nostrils to the ground (“Vayikod vayishtachu le’apav”).
The fascinating part of the episode is the revolving attitude of the faithful diviner. He did know God and listened to Him. He was ordered to go with God’s enemies in order to curse Israel. And thus, God protected him as his best friend the aton/she-donkey did. “Aton” is a special word. In Daniel 3:9 it is stated: “Who ever will not fall down and worship (the statue of gold) shall be thrown into a burning fiery furnace (lego-atun nura)”. In this prophetic verse against idolatry, the word symbolically refers to God’s anger before redemption.
It could be possible to mention the numerous quotations linking Balaam, as a negative personality, to Jesus of Nazareth. It may be far more interesting to open other ways. Balaam is the pagan diviner that recognized the living God and bowed totally down (Ps. 95:6). God and his she-donkey switched his tongue from cursing to blessing to such an extent that till now, when entering a synagogue, we say: “How fair are your tents, Jacob, your dwellings Israel!” (Num. 24:5). Judaism always relies and complies with the words of converted pagans and this is a major aspect of the Jewish faith (cf. Jonah, Ruth). The three Magi that came from the East to see the new born child Jesus in Bethlehem also refused to bow down before Herod and did not tell him where the child was laying, which shows a real connection with the Tradition (Matthew 2:1-12). Finally, God shows animals as instruments of the redemption and true faith or apostasy. Balaam had beaten his donkey three times without being aware of the good she was calling upon him. The first morning blessing praises the “sechvi – rooster, cock – but also conscience!” to have the capacity to distinguish night from day. When Jesus is judged, Peter-Kaipha is sitting around near the fire. Jesus had told him: “This very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times… He went out and began to weep bitterly (Matthew 26:75).
It should be the task of all clerics to kick us like the she-donkey. Or do we have roosters?