Sermon Notes 07/07/12 - Balak

When Less is More

If you'd wanted to hear my sermon, you'd have come to Shul, but...

Actually, I didn't give a sermon this week as my community had the privilege of hosting Professor Elliott Malamet from Toronto, who delivered three fascinating and thought-provoking talks - see here for details.

Yet the story of Bilam's donkey, which appears in this week's Torah reading, offers a further opportunity to explore the Rambam's approach to certain challenging biblical texts.

While it is almost universally assumed that the narrative describes an actual, physical event, the Rambam (Maimonides) asserts that it was a prophetic vision - i.e. it happened only in Bilam's mind but was not observable by an outsider. As he explains:

The entire [episode] of Bilaam's journey and the words of the donkey - all were a prophetic vision. (Moreh Nevochim 2:42)

Indeed, for the Rambam, 'everywhere that the appearance or speech of an angel is mentioned, it is always a prophetic vision of dream, whether this is explicitly mentioned or not... Know this and understand it extremely well'. (ibid.)

So, frustratingly for literalists, the Rambam contends that there wasn't a talking donkey in any 'real' sense. However, this appears to be contradicted by an explicit Mishnah, which sites the 'mouth of the donkey' within a group of specially-created items:

Ten things were created at twilight on the [first] Friday evening... the mouth of the donkey.. (Mishnah, Avot 5:6)

Since the other items in the list - including the staff of Moshe, the manna and tablets of the covenant - were clearly real, physical entities, this strongly suggest that the 'mouth of the donkey' - surely a euphemism for it actually speaking - was also 'real'.

The Chief Rabbi once suggested to me that the Rambam meant that Bilam's journey actually took place; when Bilam hit the donkey, he heard its braying as human speech. It may be that the capacity for this to happen at the right moment in history was created on the first Friday afternoon in history, allowing the Rambam's non-literalist approach to square with the Mishnah.

Rambam's certainty that human beings cannot detect angels, and consequently, the 'talking donkey' must have been a vision, is consonant with his insistence that nothing in existence other than God is inherently holy. It also fits with what I would term his 'rational minimalism', the contention that God is as economic as possible when He must interfere with the natural running of the world, something I've mentioned before here. In practice, this means that God uses the minimum intervention to achieve his desired outcome - in this case, since a vision could suffice to rebuke Bilam and demonstrate that he was merely a pawn in the hand of the divine, no more miraculous event needed, or indeed, could have, occurred.

This approach remains unpopular in a Jewish world that often assumes that 'more is more' both in practice and theory. I've noticed that many speakers (and, it would seem, their audiences), assume that if two stories can illustrate a point then eight must do so better. From this perspective, when dealing with theological matters, the more overt the divine intervention, the greater the God.

The Rambam's approach challenges the validity of this view. For him, only a God who can change the course of history with the slightest intervention is truly omnipotent - 'less is more'.