Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/aguichard
Balak, What the Donkey Sees and Says
©️2023 Trisha Arlin
A people-pleaser, and
A freelance speaker of
Curses and blessings,
Had a donkey
That he rode
To his professional engagements.
One day Bilam was hired
By a fearful king,
To professionally curse
A passing people
Whom the king felt threatened by
(To be fair, there were a lot of them).
On Bilam’s way to the gig,
Riding his donkey,
An angel appeared.
Wielding a big sword
And much opposition
To the cursing job at hand,
And very prepared to kill Bilam
To prevent this outcome.
Bilam could not see the angel
But the donkey,
Who had lived a long life,
So she refused to go forward.
Twice Bilam beat the donkey to force her forward
And twice she refused.
Frustrated and hurt and bored by the abuse
The donkey finally spoke up.
“I can’t go on,“ said the donkey.
“I see an angel with a sword in the path ahead.“
Bilam beat the donkey some more.
“You can hit me all you want,” the donkey said,
“But I see what I see.
When have I ever lied to you before?”
Bilam had to admit that this was so,
Whereupon he was able to see the angel
And have a conversation.
The story goes on,
That even though Bilam tries to curse the passing horde
He finds himself only able to praise them,
Much to Balak’s chagrin,
And the story ends with Bilam’s beautiful blessing,
“How good are your tents, O Jacob…”
Nothing more is heard from the donkey.
When you are a talking donkey,
You see stuff.
and when you see stuff
You say stuff.
It’s not always welcome,
and you get yelled at,
Because often you don’t say truth in a way
That people can or want to
But if an angel with a sword is standing in the path,
And if you are a talking donkey,
And try to make your point.
And if you’re with that beast
It might behoove you to listen
No matter how annoying she may be.
Life as a talking donkey can be hard:
You are often not particularly beloved.
No one chooses you for their team on the playground.
People-pleasers may hit you
And sometimes angels slay you
But mostly everyone ignores you.
But if you see stuff
You gotta say stuff.
It is in your nature,
If you’re a lucky beast
You get to be old
And then it gets easier.
Rumors of wisdom might get you
And the constant shame
About your awkward donkey shape
And your big donkey mouth,
The kind of shame
That keeps you quiet
When you should speak
When you are extraordinary,
Begins to peel away
Like an onion.
A young donkey shuts herself up
Better than anyone else can
But an old donkey
Just brays and brays and brays.
A smart prophet will listen.
There are times,
When grief and fear have taken over.
When everyone is Balak
And all they can see are threatening hordes.
It may be that we are in one of those times.
And it is upon all the donkeys to speak up
To remind us of what,
In our panic,
We cannot see.
The donkey sometimes sees the perpetrators
And the hate for what it often is:
And they are right to be afraid:
Change is hard,
Just ask Balak.
But the donkey sometimes also sees the activists
And their despair for what it is:
And they are right to feel others’ pain and joy.
Prophecy is hard,
Just ask Bilam.
And sometimes the donkey also sees the survivors
And their persistence and stubbornness for what they are:
And they are right to look towards the future but
Imagining happy endings is hard,
Just ask those passing hordes.
You can’t hide from talking donkeys:
They never shut up.
And the next time you meet one,
She might say something true
That ends in a beautiful blessing…
Or she might not.
Do not hit her,
She might hit back.
Trisha Arlin is a liturgist, performer and teacher in Brooklyn, NY. Her work appears in journals, anthologies and siddurim and in her book, PLACE YOURSELF (Dimus Parrhesia Press). A founding member of the Bayit Liturgical Artists, their pandemic work is collected in FROM NARROW PLACES (Ben Yehuda Press). Liturgist In Residence at the 2014 NHC Summer Institute, Arlin was a Drisha Arts Fellow, in the sixth DLTI cohort and studied liturgy and other rabbinical at the Academy for Jewish Religion. She teaches online for Ritualwell and in private zoom classes and in person at the 2023 Aleph Kallah. Her work can be seen online at Ritualwell.com, OpenSiddur.org, her blog, https://triganza.blogspot.com, and in 2023 she will be a Featured Liturgist at Recustom.