Balak, the king of the Moabites, grew frightened by the growing numbers of Israelites, saying, “Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an ox licks up the grass of the field.” (Numbers 22:4) He sent for the prophet Balaam and commanded him to curse the Israelites. Balaam saddled his donkey for the journey. Lo and behold the donkey saw an angel of the Lord and spoke to Balaam preventing him from cursing the Israelites. The animal helped to open the prophet’s eyes so that he might bless the people. The story’s irony cannot be missed. The prophet is blind. The animal sees.
A talking donkey? The tradition of course views this as a miracle that we should not question. The 20th century Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig, suggests that he believes the story only when it is read in synagogue or perhaps it is better to say, at that moment he suspends disbelief and doubt. He said, “On the Shabbos when they read it from the Torah, I believe it.”
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes: “Taken literally, the whole story is obviously silly. Or is it? Even though it makes us uncomfortable, animals can and do know things hidden from human perception and people do routinely communicate with them.” (Lawrence Kushner and David Mamet, Five Cities of Refuge)
Anyone who has a pet will affirm this observation. Animals have an awareness that humans sometimes lack. Birds for example are able to weather hurricanes and storms far better than we are. Not only are the blessed with the ability to fly outside of the storm’s path but they are also endowed with an inner barometer that forewarns them about impending storms. Each species of birds has developed different strategies for dealing with the weather.
Since the hurricane we have noticed, for example, that the local osprey have changed their nesting patterns. In the days following the storm we spied an osprey on our neighbor’s front lawn. Recently as I rode towards Target Rock along West Neck Road I discovered an osprey nest on the edge of the causeway. In the past these birds could only be seen off in the distance atop tall poles. Since Hurricane Sandy they apparently were forced to build nests in whatever trees were still left standing.
Usually when riding, I never stop, except at traffic lights of course. But this moment took my breath away. There, only a few feet above the road was an osprey nest with chicks in it. Their parent (I have no way of determining whether it was the mother or father) stood near its young with a fish in its talons. I stopped to marvel at nature.
I breathed in God’s creation. I discovered amazement at its ability to find rejuvenation. Even after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy nature returns and is restored. I listened to the osprey’s call and its chicks’ whistle. And like Balaam I sang: “How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob/ Your dwellings, O Israel!/ Like palm-groves that stretch out,/ Like gardens beside a river,/ Like aloes planted by the Lord,/ Like cedars beside the water…” (Numbers 24:5-7)