Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Parsha Point to Ponder [The Working Man Chronicles]

This is my first effort to continue since I recently started working full-time, so here goes.

In an earlier post, I discussed some nuances to what is all too often portrayed as a simple debate between literalists VS. allegorists. Well, in this week's sedrah we are presented the peculiar episode of Bilaam and his donkey.

וַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל-בִּלְעָם, לַיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אִם-לִקְרֹא לְךָ בָּאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, קוּם לֵךְ אִתָּם; וְאַךְ, אֶת-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-אֲדַבֵּר אֵלֶיךָ--אֹתוֹ תַעֲשֶׂה. וַיָּקָם בִּלְעָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-אֲתֹנוֹ; וַיֵּלֶךְ, עִם-שָׂרֵי מוֹאָב. וַיִּחַר-אַף אֱלֹהִים, כִּי-הוֹלֵךְ הוּא, וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ, לְשָׂטָן לוֹ; וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל-אֲתֹנוֹ, וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ
[Numbers 22:20-22]

What follows is quite explicitly stated, albeit remarkable in what it says.

וַתֵּרֶא הָאָתוֹן אֶת-מַלְאַךְ יְהוָה נִצָּב בַּדֶּרֶךְ, וְחַרְבּוֹ שְׁלוּפָה בְּיָדוֹ, וַתֵּט הָאָתוֹן מִן-הַדֶּרֶךְ, וַתֵּלֶךְ בַּשָּׂדֶה; וַיַּךְ בִּלְעָם אֶת-הָאָתוֹן, לְהַטֹּתָהּ הַדָּרֶךְ
[Numbers 22:23]

Ramban comments, and I paraphrase, that, surely, this is just a metaphor for some sense of dread that fell upon the donkey. He observed that when the donkey talks it makes no mention of the angel.

וַתֹּאמֶר הָאָתוֹן אֶל-בִּלְעָם, הֲלוֹא אָנֹכִי אֲתֹנְךָ אֲשֶׁר-רָכַבְתָּ עָלַי מֵעוֹדְךָ עַד-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה--הַהַסְכֵּן הִסְכַּנְתִּי, לַעֲשׂוֹת לְךָ כֹּה; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא
[Numbers 22:30]

It seems a bit odd, at first, that the Ramban, who is more often identified with the literalist position (for lack of a better term), would take an allegorical approach to the donkey seeing the angel, but a literal understanding of the donkey talking- even, as mentioned above, using the donkey's speech as a proof against its angelic vision! Why is this so?!?

Ramban explains that to see an angel requires a prophetic, or near-prophetic, spiritual level which is unattainable to an animal. [It is one thing for the sea to split and quite another for it to commune with G-D]

Faced with a text that posed difficulties with his own reasoned and well-founded understandings, the Ramban felt compelled to learn this one part allegorically. He did not advocate an unquestioning fundamentalist interpretation. Rather, once again, we see that even a more literal reading of the text requires scrutiny and nuance to achieve a more complete understanding.