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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

In the World of Talking Donkeys

Updated: Jul 13, 2022

Parshat Balak highlights the idea of prophets and prophecy in a most unusual way. A prophet has little choice in the message that he or she delivers as a prophet is a mouthpiece for a message from God. This message about prophecy, is delivered in a Parsha that somehow reminds me of the Beatle's songs, Strawberry Fields Forever or I am the Walrus. The story seems to come out of nowhere, the settings, the characters are all painted with a brush that seems almost kaleidoscopic. If I may be so bold, Parshat Balak is a psychodelic interlude in the book of Numbers, that teaches us about prophecy.

In brief, Parshat Balak is a story of the king of Moab, King Balak, who fears the power of the approaching Israelites, so he approaches an influential non-Jewish prophet and asks him to travel to Moab to publicly curse the Israelites. The story continues as Balaam, the prophet talks to God who discourages him from taking the trip, but Balaam decides to go anyway and curse the Israelites. As he travels toward his destination , along the route God places bizarre obstacles, such angels with swords and talking donkeys in Balaam's way to discourage his progress. When Balaam finally reaches the mountaintop to utter his curses aimed at the Israelites below, only words of blessing pour forth. Three times Balaam tried to curse and three times blessings came forth. Each time these words pour out, King Balak is more and more furious, but Balaam the prophet is powerless to choose his own words and so the people are blessed.

With this poem, more than anything else, I wanted to paint a picture of this dizzying parsha, its quickly changing scenes and the colorful characters portrayed.

In the World of Talking Donkeys

Once upon a time there was an upside down story

within a book,

within the Inspired volume of 5,

where up was down

and down was up;

and a moaning king played his hand for all to see

and the King of Kings directed,


as words of Praise

sprinkled down


sugar and spice

onto the

blurred landscape far below the mountaintop.

Escher could have sketched it.

Chagall could have painted it.

But only the King of Kings,

with love and a hint

of playfulness,

could have written it.

The upside down story within a book

within the Inspired volume of 5

is populated with men with chests inflated,

their purple robes flowing,

their beards carefully combed

impressed with their own importance

and a king with lower case k

who cowers in the corner,

perhaps rightly so;

commands come puffing

like dandelion seeds


from his puckered lips,

Poof !!!

Poof !!!

They float through the air,

their unrequited demands

fall into the ears of an eager,

powerful prophet,

who dreams of power

but discovers himself

quite powerless.

And if this is not enough

in this topsy turvy world

where banners fly

and donkeys talk

and angels guard the mountain paths,

and swords are drawn and swiped

there is a man

A gifted man

who speaks to the Kings of Kings

who beats his donkey

and speaks volumes.

Despite all efforts,

Try though this gifted man may,

Closing his eyes tight

and balling his fists

and holding his nose

and concentrating very hard,


and opening his mouth to curse,

praise erupts from his mouth

and like the waters in the desert,

after the rock was hit,

after words were proclaimed

the praise flowed downward


the talking donkey,


the poofing king,


the dignitaries,

with their inflated chests,


the angels with the swords,


even the gifted man himself,

the messages float on the breeze

to the people below.

And the words spread over the people

in the dotted valley below.

The people drink those words.

and there they swim around

even there

even in a world

where up is down and down is up

and the world is not

all sugar and spice.

And so it is when truth escapes,

when truth is finally told;

however difficult it is to force it out...

it is presented

like a gift.

It's just another day

an upside down scene

drawn in all the colors of the rainbow

in an inspired volume of 5,

sketched by Escher,

painted by Chagall,

remembered to this day,

written and directed

by the King of Kings.


מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights, There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations,

Who can count the dust*dust Cf. Gen. 13.16. of Jacob, Number*Number Lit. “and the number of.” the dust-cloud of Israel? May I die the death of the upright,*upright Heb. yesharim, a play on yeshurun (“Jeshurun” in Deut. 32.15), a name for Israel. May my fate be like theirs!

Then Balak said to Balaam, “What have you done to me? Here I brought you to damn my enemies, and instead you have blessed them!”

He replied, “I can only repeat faithfully what יהוה puts in my mouth.”

Numbers 23:9-12

מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

How fair are your tents, O Jacob,

Your dwellings, O Israel!

Translation from Sefaria.

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