What Makes God Laugh
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The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
There is an old saying that what makes God laugh is seeing our plans for the future. Man plans and God laughs. However, if Tanach is our guide, we might think that what makes God laugh is human delusions of grandeur. When observed from heaven, the ultimate absurdity is when humans start thinking of themselves as Godlike.
This explains the curious episode of Bilam’s talking donkey. This is not a fanciful tale, nor simply a miracle. It arose because of the way the people of Moav and Midian thought of Bilam – and perhaps, by extension, the way he thought of himself. Balak, the Moabite king, together with the leaders of the Midianites, sent a group to Bilam asking him to curse the Israelites. Their behaviour was influenced by the pagan understanding of the holy man: a wonder-worker who has access to supernatural powers. The Torah’s view is precisely the opposite. It is God who blesses and curses, not human beings. The idea that you can hire a holy man to curse someone essentially presupposes that God can be bribed, which is ludicrous.
And so God tells Bilam not to go. King Balak sends a second group with a more tempting offer for Bilan. This time God tells Bilam to go with them but to say only what He instructs him to say. The next morning Bilam sets out to go with the Moabites, but the text now states that God was “angry” with him for going. That is when the episode of the donkey takes place.
The donkey sees an angel barring the way. It turns aside into a field but Bilam hits it and forces it back to the path. The angel is still barring the way and the donkey veers into a wall, squashing Bilam’s foot. Bilam hits it again, but finally it lies down and refuses to move. That is when the donkey begins to speak. Bilam then looks up and sees the angel, who had been hitherto invisible to him.
The story of the talking donkey is an instance of Divine laughter. Here was a man reputed to be a maestro of supernatural forces. People thought he had the power to bless or curse whomever he chose. God, the Torah tells us, is not like that at all. God had two messages: one for the Moabites and Midianites, another for Bilam himself. He showed the Moabites and Midianites that Israel is not cursed but blessed. The more you attempt to curse them, the more they will be blessed and you yourself will be cursed. But God had a different message for Bilam himself, and it was very blunt. If you think you can control God, then, says God, I will show you that I can turn a donkey into a prophet and a prophet into a donkey. Your animal will see angels to which you yourself are blind.
Pride always leads to downfall eventually. In a world in which rulers engaged in endless projects of self-aggrandisement, Israel alone produced a literature in which they attributed their successes to God and their failures to themselves. Far from making them weak, this made them extraordinarily strong. So it is with us as individuals. Pagan prophets like Bilam had not yet learned the lesson we must all one day learn: that what matters is not that God does what we want, but that we do what He wants. God laughs at those who think they have godlike powers. The opposite is true. The smaller we see ourselves, the greater we become.
- Why do you think Bilam became so arrogant that he believed he had Divine powers?
- Why do you think God chose a donkey as the messenger to teach him a lesson?
- What lesson can we learn for our lives from this episode?
At Twilight in Jerusalem
by Rabbi Danny Baigel
This week Rabbi Sacks teaches us how God ‘laughs’ at the plans of people who believe they have Godlike control. The idea that we have absolute control of the world reminds me of an episode that took place on Parashat Balak ten years ago during a school trip to Israel. It was the final Shabbat of an inspiring three-week journey and I was leading a group of students singing in the Cardo (the old Roman market) in the ancient city of Yerushalayim.
It was a beautiful moment, going exactly to plan. The group were creating a ruach – an atmosphere – which inspired not just our own group, but passers-by too, who joined us in song. It felt like we represented the resurgence of Jewish life, restoring Jewish vibrancy to a place where those who sought to destroy us were now solely represented by crumbling pillars.
As planned, prior to Havdallah, one teacher stood up to address the group. All of a sudden, a stranger dressed head-to-toe in a white garb, with a long white beard, began shouting down at us, passionately prophesying our impending doom. The atmosphere changed from intensely spiritual to one of unease and disruption. We tried to ignore the loud distraction, but it became clear that someone needed to intervene. A madrich politely asked the man to leave. However, he continued to shout, urging us to repent and seek the light. We then sent over our security guard, an elite member of the IDF. He strongly encouraged the person to leave. This too failed.
Eventually, one of the teachers went over and began chatting with the gentleman, distracting him in conversation. We used this as an opportune time to take the group to the Kotel for an inspiring Havdallah, and there we found an experience even more memorable than the one we had planned. The students of that trip still remember this episode fondly, recalling both the spiritual time we shared and the unexpected turn it took. For me, it reinforces the message that planning is vital, but plans don’t always go to plan! Sometimes we too must laugh, knowing that ultimately our success is in the hands of God.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Rabbi Danny Baigel is the Secondary Programmes Manager and Jewish Career Pathways Director at the London School of Jewish Studies.
A Closer Look
R. Danny Baigel now reflects on some of the deeper lessons he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks’ essay this week, and why?
When discussing the topic of role models with my students, the most popular answer I have encountered is “grandparents”. The people who really influence us and have a long-lasting impact on who we try to become are often the humble, unassuming characters in our life. In my case, my grandparents epitomised the values of hospitality and warmth, but would never put themselves on a pedestal. As Rabbi Sacks puts it, ‘It is those who think themselves small- supremely so Moshe, the humblest of men – who are truly great.’ I love this idea.
Which idea expressed in this week’s piece do you think is the most important message for the next generation?
Competition is healthy and often motivates us to try harder. However, this should never lead to an arrogance that clouds our judgement and relationships. In this week’s piece Rabbi Sacks’ draws out this idea. Using the example of the Egyptian magicians he relates how their arrogance contributed to the Divine retribution. Their focus should have been on ‘turning blood back into water and making frogs not appear but disappear.’ In this instance they were too focused on outdoing Moshe and Aharon. In other words, anything they can do, we can do better… It’s okay to aim for the top, but arrogance will only bring us back down to the starting point.
How many animals can you find mentioned in parshat Balak?
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
These are the 12 animals mentioned in Balak:
- tzippor (bird – Bamidbar 22:2)
- shor (ox – Bamidbar 22:4)
- atton (donkey – Bamidbar 22:21)
- bakar (cattle – Bamidbar 22:40)
- tzon (sheep – Bamidbar 22:40)
- par (bull – Bamidbar 23:1)
- ayil (ram – Bamidbar 23:1)
- re’em (buffalo – Bamidbar 23:22)
- nachash (snake – Bamidbar 23:23)
- lavi (young lion – Bamidbar 23:24)
- ari (lion – Bamidbar 23:24)
- seir (billy goat – Bamidbar 24:18)
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks