Hope everyone had a great week. I heard some wonderful stories this week I’d like to share, especially because they tease out a beautiful message in this week’s parshah.
One of my sons was on vacation and met an iguana that was hanging around his room. He told me how he planned to have the iguana eat out of his hand by the end of the two weeks. He explained to me that iguana’s display certain behaviours when they feel threatened or cornered. He detailed the behaviours he was watching for. I realized my son speaks ‘iguana’ and wondered whose genes he inherited.
He planned where and how he would meet and greet the iguana everyday and how he would advance his plan to interact. His wife showed me a video on her phone of their last day on vacation as the iguana came to my son and ate from his hand.
I am in awe.
Please understand, I have no desire to communicate with an iguana. Reptiles make me nervous. I take no comfort when I’m told they’re more afraid of me than I am of them because that just means now they feel trapped and I’m the bigger threat. I am more the school of thought that says ‘as long as we don’t see each other we won’t scare the living daylights out of each other’ – fair is fair – and most reptiles smell my philosophy all over me and thankfully leave me alone.
But I was still in awe.
And as wonderful as the iguana story is, because it’s so unusual, the second story is also great for the opposite reason, it is so common. It involves a clown fish and her clown fish mate. My only exposure to clown fish is from the movie Finding Nemo and it definitely doesn’t do them justice. Ms. CLOWN FISH (and I deliberately capitalize that), dominates Mr. clown fish in every way. He eats and sleeps when she gives him permission and in return, she protects him – she is larger and basically organizes and rules his life. She is Clown Fish Queen!
I was told that when these fish first meet, the female will bump the male with her nose, and he must then vibrate in response. Apparently, she is asking if he accepts her as dominant and she demands he vibrate to indicate yes. If he does not vibrate, she kills him. Interesting system.
Why am I sharing these obscure stories? Because they speak directly to this week’s parshah of the foreign prophet and the talking donkey. This week’s parshah is Balak and in the parshah, Balak, the King of Moab, hires Balaam, a foreign prophet, to curse Israel. Much as he tries, Balaam cannot curse us because God has made it clear to him that we are blessed. He tries repeatedly and fails each time.
In fact, in one attempt, his donkey refuses to walk because she sees an angel blocking her way with an outstretched sword. Balaam doesn’t see the angel. After beating her, the donkey speaks to Balaam and explains about the angel and only then is he able to see it. Yes, this is in the Torah.
I am fascinated with how animals play into the lives of foreign prophets or prophets headed to foreign lands. Balaam and his donkey are the most obvious example but when the prophet Jonah tries to avoid delivering a prophecy to a foreign land, a whale swallows him, shelters him and ultimately delivers him where he needs to be.
These instances of extraordinary natural interactions are only a few indications of what the Sages tell us about the vision of creation. According to the midrash, all of creation shares a common language but most of humanity has forgotten it. The water in the clouds and the water in the earth speak and coordinate how to feed the grass and trees. The rain will limit itself to only penetrate so deep since the waters in the earth will only rise so far. That way, little roots are fed and giant roots are fed in perfect balance.
Unfortunately, the Sages believe we have made ourselves deaf to this language and over time, we have stopped hearing it. There is a midrash that describes how we cut fruit bearing trees because we no longer hear them cry for the loss of their fruit, their children, but apparently their cries fill the world.
In its original vision, we believe creation embodies unimaginable diversity of species who all connect, communicate and collaborate toward balance. Yet so much of that has gone astray and it becomes so disheartening but then I think of my son and the iguana and the language of the clown fishes and the angel and the donkey.
In fact, it is Balaam, the foreign ill-intentioned prophet, who ultimately blesses Israel and says, “Ma Tovu” – How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel. Every siddur begins with these words and tradition says we should speak them as we enter any shul. But we’ve taken that even further. Jewish gatherings and summer bonfires are filled with people swaying, arms on each other’s shoulders, singing Ma Tovu. Kids are taught to sing it in rounds, and we take it as a moment of unity and harmony.
The Torah teaches us that God speaks with everyone and the Sages remind us that the wise one is the one who learns from every person. As summer surrounds us and we are filled with the sounds of nature everywhere, what a beautiful message this week to take even a few seconds and listen to the sounds around us and remind ourselves that it is, in fact, a language.