What donkeys can teach us…

This coming Shabbat (Sabbath), Jewish communities around the world will be invited to reflect upon the lessons contained in the weekly scriptural text of “Korach” (Number 16:1-18:32; I Samuel 11:14-12:22) which contains the story of the attempted uprising of Korach and his followers against Moses, Aaron and Miriam.

It is hard not to reflect upon the themes in this Torah portion without also thinking about contemporary issues surrounding the idea of illegitimate leadership, attempted coups of power, and profound social unrest that could lead to uprisings and even (G!d forbid) civil war…

Furthermore, the role that religion seems to have always played in such situations (then and now) is certainly cause for further study for those of us who identify as people of faith. What, within the realm of religion, might possibly need some repair to prevent future such incidents?

Korach spoke up to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, and challenged their understanding of Divine Will. Moses took these words to heart, and in prayer, implored:

“Moses was exceedingly distressed and said to the Holy One: “Do not accept their offering. I have not taken a donkey from a single one of them. I have not harmed a single one of them.”

Traditional rabbinic commentary seeks to understand this unusual comment. What does a donkey have to do with this? The early rabbis explain that this intervention came from a Moses that was questioning himself: What did he do to provoke this? He further notes that “I have not harmed them.”

From this, we see that the first step to any challenge to one’s authority ought to be to look inward. What role did we play in the situation? Rather than respond defensively, are there lessons that we can learn from what happened?

Moses’ comment about the donkey is then explained by traditional rabbinic commentary as a reflection: “I never interacted with them- not even to take their donkey, or to try to do trade with them.” From this perspective, Moses then realized that his part in the dispute was to not have tried to build a relationship that might have prevented the wedge between the two groups from growing to the level that it did.

Divisive rhetoric is not simply an issue for biblical times, but in our own day as well. This is true in terms of politics, religion or even relationship. From a rabbinic perspective, binary ideas such as good or bad, right or wrong, are actually hubris. The central Jewish text is the Talmud, which contains within each page, 2000 years of rabbis disagreeing with one another, and all voices and perspectives coexisting on one page. If G!d is everywhere and in everything, then our job as humans, is to try to open our minds and hearts to expand our understanding of what is sacred, even if it is not immediately obvious, or even if it is not popular.

Far too often, we response defensively and cast the other in negative terms- attack before we are attacked. But, the deeper spiritual lesson of this biblical passage, is to invite us to use everything, even an egregious setback, as an opportunity to look deep within and see what we can do to bring healing and connection back.

Of course, this is not always easy. We can look back and see what went wrong and try to learn from what happened- the divisiveness that led to not even donkeys being exchanged between groups of people. The donkey is an image of obstinacy. The refusal to see the other person’s perspective is the beginning of the end, according to the rabbis.

And indeed, Korach’s rebellion is quashed, and the rabbis explain that his anger and toxicity had become so extreme that the earth swallowed him up. There are limits. Violence and hatred can never be condoned religiously. When religion is used as a weapon, it loses its sanctity. We can try to see his perspective and learn from it, but his human limitations were such that he was no longer willing to be in dialogue and try to work things out.

So what is the message of this biblical text? There is another biblical passage (Numbers 22) about a donkey that might provide us with some deeper insight. King Balak of Moab sent the prophet Balaam to go and curse the Children of Israel. Balaam was on a donkey and wanted to go do what he was told. However, the donkey saw an angel standing in his way and refused to follow orders until eventually, the prophet Balaam saw clearly. In that moment, Balaam felt compelled to bless his enemy.

This is an example of how authority and power often gets it wrong (like King Balak), and how people of faith (like the prophet Balaam) are blind, and it takes the obstinate donkey to finally help them transform the curse into a blessing. But this is a happy donkey story: it might have taken Balaam a few tries, and he whipped the donkey and caused harm until he finally got it. But eventually, he saw what the donkey saw. And in that moment, when he saw from a perspective that was not his own… the blessing emerged.

In our own day, we often may feel like those in power are getting it wrong, and many of those who claim to speak in the name of religion are blind to what truly matters… in those moments, the donkey may have something powerful to teach us: we need to pay attention to those obstacles, reflect on ourselves, learn, build and strengthen relationships when possible, and find ways of reclaiming the religious voice from those who seek to usurp it.

History has shown us that some leaders, like Korach, are filled with too much venom to be redeemed. There are times when we need to be brave enough to start fresh. Some things can’t be fixed. But we can still learn from them, and we can grow better and stronger, if we are willing to look at ourselves honestly and non-defensively.

It is easy to feel defeated, but the donkey reminds us of the power of determination… and the importance of finding ways to transform every negative into a positive. We never know what will be the event that can yield blessings, but let us pray that it will be soon and speedily, and may each of us stay open to the ways that Spirit moves through us and through this world. May we do our part to disarm those seeking to destroy that which is good and just, and do what we can to try to build bridges of connection and healing into a new era of Shalom (wholeness and peace).