This Torah portion has something in common with the movie Shrek. Both feature a talking donkey.
The portion is named after the Moabite king, Balak. Balak wanted to destroy the Israelites. Rather than defeat the Israelites through the violence of war, Balak attempted to accomplish his victory through sorcery. He sought out Balaam, the best prophet in the Moabite kingdom. The king Balak beseeched Balaam to help defeat the Israelites -
... since they are too numerous for me; perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land. For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed” (Numbers 22:6)
So, Balaam prepares for his journey toward the Israelite camp, ready to curse the Israelites with his magical vocal powers of prophecy. Balak saddles his donkey and starts his trek.
Here is where it gets interesting ... The donkey swerves away from the path on three different locations, seeming to purposefully sabotage Balaam's plans. Balaam becomes increasingly upset and beats the donkey.
And here is where it gets really interesting ... The donkey speaks to Balaam. It says:
Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing thus to you?
There's something different about this donkey. In fact, Pirke Avot lists this donkey's mouth as one of ten extraordinary creations that God created at twilight just before the first Shabbat!
God then appears to Balaam and yells at him for beating the donkey. God says
Why have you beaten your ass these three times? It is **I** who came out as an adversary, for your errand is obnoxious to me.
As we continue further with this tale, we see that it culminates in Balaam not only being unable to curse the Israelites - Balaam blesses them! Balaam's prophecy of a curse turns into a positive benediction. Balaam's words are ones that we sing on Shabbat mornings: Mah Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov - How good are your tents, O Jacob. What was meant to be a devastating blow to the Israelites was instead transformed into a beautiful blessing that is now a wonderful addition to our liturgy.
It's a strange story, but perhaps even more notable than this tale of the talking donkey is the very name of the Torah portion, Balak. Balak is one of only two Torah portions named after a non-Jew. The other, Yitro, celebrates the mentorship of Moses' father-in-law Jethro as he helps Moses delegate leadership and responsibilities amongst the Israelites. But this portion is named after a king who wanted to destroy the Israelites.
The name of our Torah portion calls us to learn something very important. Just as Moses needed to look outside of himself and heed the wisdom of Jethro, Balak teaches us that we do not know everything, and that we must look outward. Balaam did not realize the wisdom of his heroic donkey. Balak wanted to destroy the Israelites for being an alien people ... for being different. Balaam and his donkey teach us that difference and strangeness are not curses to be dealt with, but rather blessings to embrace.
A midrash explains Balaam's shift from words of curse to words of blessing. Balaam completes the journey to the Israelite camp. In the morning, he climbs a nearby mountain so that he can see all of the Israelites encamped below. The midrash suggests that after seeing this sight of the Israelites, it wasn't that God forced words of blessing out of Balaam's mouth. The very sight of the Israelite encampment was enough for Balaam to choose to give the words of blessing.
And what did he see? He saw the Israelites within their tents. Each of the tents was open on three sides, welcoming visitors. The tents were open to the ideas of others. They invited in strangers, aliens. The Israelites realized that they couldn't only rely on themselves, but needed to venture into the community. Balaam saw all this and changed his words.
As we look around our synagogue, our community and our world, let our tents be open on three sides as well. Perhaps others too will look at us and say:
Ma Tovu Ohalecha Ya'akov Miscanotecha Yisrael.