Rabbi Jonathan Magonet writes: “I sometimes ask my Bible class: “If you were a donkey, what would you look for in the Bible?” and the answer comes quite readily: stories about donkeys! And believe it or not there are a number from which to choose, the most famous of which is in this week’s Torah portion. Balaam, a non Jewish prophet is dispatched by Balak, a non Jewish king, to curse the Israelites. Balaam says that he will go, afterall, a job is a job, but he can only say what God places in his mouth and if God does not want him to curse the Israelites he won’t. Balak decides that is good enough and Balaam heads out on his donkey. At one point in the journey, the donkey stops and refuses to move forward, Balaam curses and beats the donkey who turns around and says: what are you doing!? Have I ever behaved like this before? Surely you can understand that there is a reason for this! Look there is an angel in our path and we can’t move forward! So in this fascinating story, Balaam the prophet can’t see what is before him and his donkey can! From the perspective of a donkey, this is a pretty great story. The donkey has insight and is more wise than its master, she teaches lessons about listening, power, having a voice, the treatment of animals. From Balaam’s perspective it is a completely different story. He considers the miracle of his donkey talking, is chastised for beating his animal, he is embarrassed that his donkey, traditionally considered one of the less “intelligent” animals, has vision that he, one of the great prophets, does not.
Whenever we read a passage in the Torah we bring with us our perspectives, our biases and our prejudices. We bring our life experience, our age, gender, education, values, religion, so many aspects are brought to play in our interpretation. This adds to the richness of the conversations, the unfolding of different meanings and the discovery of the intricate layers of our Torah. But this is only possible when we are able to speak and have a conversation with openness and understanding, where we respect one another’s opinions and honor those with whom we speak, even when, and especially when we disagree. There are records of the many debates between the schools of the two great Talmudic Rabbis, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai. They are legendary for their disagreements but we are told that they are: machlochet shem shamayim “disagreements for the sake of heaven.” The Mishnah tells us there are a number of reasons why these disagreements qualify for such attribution.
The first is that despite the fact that they did not agree on anything much, they still had close relationships with one another. They ate at each other’s homes, they married one another and were able to separate their debate about issues from the person with whom they were debating, enabling them to sustain their personal connections. They also had a motivation for the discussion beyond winning or losing and were open to admitting when they were wrong. Too often, the discourse in the public arena and in the Jewish community seems not to meet these criteria. We see personal attacks, people being vilified for holding positions of thought and the dialogue being less than respectful. And with the increase in the use of social media, this situation seems to be becoming more prevalent.
Each time we enter a discussion or disagree with another person, we would do well to remember the debates of Hillel and Shammai and ensure our debate is a machlochet leshem shamayim.