A mysterious event in this week’s Torah portion reveals a phenomenon new to modern psychology—that we must listen to our body’s voice, which carries messages, memories and potent power.
One of the strangest episodes in history takes place in this week’s Torah portion. The gentile prophet Balaam is commissioned by Moabite King Balak to curse the Jewish people. Balak felt threatened by the Jews. He wanted to defeat them in battle and drive them away.
Initially G-d does not allow Balaam to go. But after Balak’s emissaries beseech him G-d permits him to go, saying “But only do exactly as I instruct you.”
Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his female donkey and went on his way. G-d plants His angel in the road to oppose him.
When the donkey saw G-d’s angel standing in the road with a drawn sword in his hand, the donkey went aside from the road into the field. Balaam beat the donkey to get it back on the road. G-d’s angel then stood in a narrow path through the vineyard, where there was a fence on either side. When the donkey saw G-d’s angel, it edged over to the side, crushing Balaam’s foot against the wall. [Balaam] beat it even more. G-d’s angel continued ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left. When the donkey saw G-d’s angel, it lay down [refusing to budge] for Balaam. Balaam lost his temper and beat the donkey with a stick.
G-d then opened the donkey’s mouth and it said to Balaam,
“What have I done to you that you beat me these three times?” “You have embarrassed me [or: been playing games with me],” shouted Balaam at the donkey. “If I had a sword in my hand just now, I would have killed you!”
The donkey replied to Balaam, “Am I not your [faithful] donkey, upon which you have been riding from back when until this day. Have I ever been unmindful to you?” “No,” replied Balaam. G-d then opened Balaam’s eyes and he perceived the angel standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. [Balaam] kneeled and prostrated himself on his face.
G-d’s angel said to him,
“Why did you beat your donkey these three times? I have come out to oppose you, because your errand is obnoxious to me. When the donkey saw me, it turned aside these three times. If it had not turned aside before me, as it did now, I would have killed you and spared [the donkey].”
Balaam said to G-d’s angel: “I have sinned! I did not know that you were standing on the road before me. If you consider it wrong [for me to go], I will return home.” G-d’s angel said to Balaam, “Go with the men. But do not say anything other than the exact words that I declare to you.”
The narrative continues with G-d compelling Balaam to bless the Jews instead of cursing them, to the chagrin of Balak and his cronies.
This story with the talking donkey is puzzling from beginning to end. If G-d didn’t want Balaam to go to Balak, why didn’t he just stop him from going? If for whatever reason G-d wanted to block his way with an angel, why did he hide the fact from Balaam and allow the donkey to see the angel – after all Balaam, not the donkey, was the prophet?!
A Torah axiom states that G-d does not perform miracles in vain. Why then was this miracle of miracles necessary, to have the donkey see the angel, resist moving on, until the donkey ends up speaking?! This miracle would have been totally unnecessary if Balaam had seen the angel himself. Why the need to open the donkey’s mouth?!
The plot thickens: the Mishne states (in the Ethics of our Fathers) that the “donkey’s mouth” was one of the ten unique things created at dusk on the sixth day of creation! In other words, G-d planted this episode from the beginning of time by creating the “donkey’s mouth” for the day when the donkey would speak to Balaam!
Why is the “donkey’s mouth” so significant?
Torah speaks in the language of man. Beneath the literal meaning in the Torah narrative lay layers upon layers of deeper dimensions. Within the “body” of the story lies it’s soul – profound spiritual and psychological insights that illuminate the nature of our psyches and provide direction how to deal with the challenges of life. Every character in Torah, every episode of its narrative, parallels a facet of our personalities.
The story of Balaam and his donkey is the story of our own lives, with a multitude of lessons.
The Hebrew word for donkey is “chamor.” [A female donkey (jennet) is called “osson.” “Pered” is the Hebrew name for a mule (or a hinny), a hybrid borne of a horse and a donkey. But the general name for donkey, male or female, is “chamor”].
The Baal Shem Tov explains that “chamor” also means matter. In Exodus the verse states: “When you see the donkey of your enemy being overburdened by its burdens, don’t ignore it. It’s incumbent upon you to help relieve its burden.” Interprets the Baal Shem Tov: You observe “chamor” – your physical body and the coarse materialism of life – and you see that it is your enemy, opposing all things spiritual, and feeling overburdened by the sublime responsibilities of the soul. You may then consider ignoring the body so that it does not distract you from fulfilling your calling. You may even want to punish your body through asceticism and self-affliction. Says the Torah: No! You are responsible to support, refine and elevate the “chamor,” even if it is ostensibly your enemy.
Balaam the prophet represents the paradox of a spiritual man locked in a decadent lifestyle. Each of us has two dimensions: A sacred side and a profane one. A person may be deeply spiritual, yet also profoundly corrupt. Indeed, the Talmud says “the greater the person, the greater his evil inclination.” An extraordinarily gifted person always has equally powerful unique challenges. Left without discipline these gifts can be abused. And when they are, it is very difficult to get through to the person. Because the smarter he is, the better are his excuses and his ability to cover his tracks. He can mask his subjectivity with brilliant smokescreens.
At it’s extreme, you have Balaam: A prophet willing and delighted to use his Divine power to curse an entire nation.
Spiritual corruption or distortion is worse than other forms of corruption, because it uses a very positive force for negative ends. In other instances of corruption, you can always hope that a person’s conscience and spirit can be aroused. But once the spirit has been corrupted, and the soul has been taken hostage by destructive forces, what recourse is left?
The same holds true for any abuse perpetrated by a person who is supposed to love you: A parent, a sibling, a spouse. With strangers we have our guard up. If a stranger is abusive, s/he cannot hurt you that much because you don’t necessarily expect much from a stranger. But abuse coming from a loved one hurts us in the deepest place: the place of love. A parent, for instance, is supposed to love you, and as a child you are vulnerable before your parent. Thus, when the parent is abusive, it touches the very core of our beings: our souls. The worst abuse is the one that scars our most vulnerable places. Nothing is worse then love itself – and the source of love – being (ab)used in a cruel way.
So what is the antidote to this epitome of distortion? If the gifted person, or the one who is supposed to be providing love, has become corrupt to the point that he cannot even listen, how then do you get through to him.
The dilemma is also from the perspective of the abusee (the survivor): Once someone has been hurt in a deep part of his spirit, he doesn’t allow anyone in. So how can he be reached?
Yet, G-d in His infinite wisdom precedes the cure before the illness. Even when the soul may be unable to hear the message, the body has its own voice that speaks to us.
In modern psychology there is a phenomenon, which we shall call “psychological hypothermia.” When a child suffers severe abuse from a loved one (especially if its ongoing), the child will go “out of body” to separate himself from the experience. One of the reasons for this is presumably because the child cannot tolerate the possibility of a loved one hurting him. He therefore disassociates from the experience, as if it didn’t happen to him.
Hypothermia is “a decrease in the core body temperature to a level at which normal muscular and cerebral functions are impaired.” When a child, for instance, falls into ice-cold water, and his temperature drops to dangerous levels, the child will go into a state of shock, which shuts down the primary life functions to the point that the child may appear dead, in order to preserve the bare minimum energy for the vital organs. In other words, in order to survive the conscious faculties have to temporarily stop functioning.
The same is true psychologically. For survival purpose, sometimes we have to detach from an experience, to the point that we may be unaware of it in our conscious minds.
Yet – and this is the big yet – even as our conscious spirits may be unaware of the experience, our bodies remember them. Every experience in our lives is etched into the memory of our bodies. That is why we talk about experiencing “knots” and “tightness” in our bodies. Psychological feelings do not remain in the mental domain; they seep into the body, causing all sorts of physical reactions (“knots in the stomach” is one mild example). Anxiety oozes toxins into your body. Strong traumatic experiences tie up your body in knots.
In severe cases, the personality shift that happens at the time of abuse remains long after the experience. A child may grow into an adult that has actually shifted his personality, and is living, in some ways, like another person, often having “out of body” experiences. So severe was the initial abuse.
But, even when the soul, for whatever reason, is unable to consciously acknowledge an experience, the body has stored it away, for the day when it will be safe to emerge.
And therein lies the true power of therapy and growth: To help an individual find safety and security, so that he or she can then work on “untying the knots,” and allowing himself to access the soul that he had to hide away so long ago.
By no means is this a simple process. It can even be torturous at times. Yet, in a strange way this phenomenon is a testimony to one of the greatest resiliencies of the human being: G-d allows a child to survive even the worst experiences, and then gives him the strength to reconnect with himself when the times is right and the situation safe.
Even when the soul is not conscious of the memory, because the abuse came from a soul connection – a loving person – the body is endowed with a wisdom that does remember. And it holds the secret till the day when the soul will be able to hear the message.
This is the inside story of Balaam and his donkey. G-d could not get through to Balaam on a fundamental level. He saw that Balaam was intent on going to Balak and helping him implement his malevolent plan. But even when the soul cannot be reached, the body can. So it is the “chamor” – the body – that sees the “angel,” and it is the body that cries out to the person prodding him to open his eyes.
What is most fascinating about this concept is that usually we associate awareness with the soul. Yet, Jewish mysticism teaches that the body too was created by G-d. It therefore contains unique Divine energy of its own. Indeed, the body carries enormous power stemming from the Essence of G-d, which in some ways is superior even to the energy of the soul!
But often when our bodies speak to us, beckoning us to act, we may ignore the voice. Or worse: We may “beat” the body, as Balaam beat his donkey, because it is becoming a nuisance and distracting us from our misguided plans.
So, we have many voices available to us. In healthy situation, and in many instances, it is the voice of our souls that we should be heeding. Yet, at times our bodies carry important messages for us.
The question is: Are we listening?