Friday, June 25, 2010

Dreams of talking donkeys

Summary: Ibn Caspi's thesis that the talking donkey and the angel with sword were part of an elaborate daydream.

Post: I spotted a nice comment by Ibn Caspi a few days ago. As background to this, I should not that Ibn Caspi earlier resolves Hashem's anger at Bilaam for going, after telling him he could go, by noting that depending on intonation or context, a phrase might mean something or its opposite.

Then, he says:


To explain, Bilaam had this dream in which Hashem told him this instruction. Yet he was unsure just what Hashem meant (that is, I think, positive or negative connotation). His mind was dwelling on this topic. He arose and was on his way when he drifted off, and dozed. And this was his (prophetic) dream.

To a particular sort of pashtan and rationalist, this resolves how he was able to see a malach Hashem, meaning angel, who was first invisible. And how a donkey could talk.

If a dream, it would work out well with what I see as the allegorical message, in which Bilaam was his donkey. I suggested it could be allegorical even it is happened. But now we can simply say that it was allegory in a dream.

Lurker, on an earlier post, wrote:
Prof. Yitzhak Levine of Bar Ilan University has proposed an alternative understanding of the story that resolves this apparent contradiction, together with as many other problemmatic issues in this parsha. I find his interpretation quite convincing. You can find it in Hebrew here, and in English here.
Professor Levine's suggestion is that it is a dream, and specifically a folding over explaining the precise contents of the second dream. In other words, Bilaam dreamed this that second night.

7 comments:

Jenny said...

1. The fact that the incident with the donkey is a dream doesn't appear to fit in with the simple reading of the text, which states that Bilaam woke up in the morning, went with the officers, and only then did the whole incident unfold. If it was a dream that took place the night the second set of officers came, the incident with the donkey should have been recorded first, and only then Bilaam went with them.

2. It's interesting that the Ramban, who takes sort of a middle-approach in that the donkey didn't actually see the Angel, but rather sensed that something was wrong, has an aversion towards saying that the donkey saw an Angel of God, but doesn't seem to have a problem with the talking part that disturbs these commentators.

Jenny said...

1. The fact that the incident with the donkey is a dream doesn't appear to fit in with the simple reading of the text, which states that Bilaam woke up in the morning, went with the officers, and only then did the whole incident unfold. If it was a dream that took place the night the second set of officers came, the incident with the donkey should have been recorded first, and only then Bilaam went with them.

2. It's interesting that the Ramban, who takes sort of a middle-approach in that the donkey didn't actually see the Angel, but rather sensed that something was wrong, has an aversion towards saying that the donkey saw an Angel of God, but doesn't seem to have a problem with the talking part that disturbs these commentators.

joshwaxman said...

hi.
thanks for commenting.

first, is this a pseudonym? if so, it is a great one, given that "jenny" also means "she-donkey". if not, i hope i didn't insult you with this, but i couldn't pass on the remark. :)

in terms of (1), indeed, according to Ibn Caspi, he did wake up and got on his donkey, but perhaps because it was so early in the morning, he dozed off while riding his donkey. a sort of daydream that incorporated the setup of actual events. that it, it is a third dream.

in terms of Professor Levine's thesis, i agree that it is slightly problematic. one could try to kvetch and claim that even the going with the princes of moav was part of the dream, but he does not claim that, as part of his proof that it is a dream is that the sarei moav don't figure at all in the interactions with the donkey. yet he didn't overlook something so basic in proposing his peshat. rather, i would guess that he is saying something akin to "ain mukdam ume'uchar batorah". when you slice to a different scene, and zoom in, sometimes you first finish the present subject matter, even though it happens a bit later. as a prominent example, in the genealogical lists in Bereishit, we are told of Avraham's birth and Terach's death. And then we have a zoom in to a scene involving Avraham, which based on calculations, Terach would still be alive. so too here, we are told on a macro level of his dream and that he went with the princes of moav, and then we zoom in to find out more about the dream.

(2) indeed. in many cases, philosophical concerns bother meforshim rather than disbelief in miracles.

kt,
josh

Jenny said...

Thanks for your response to my comment. I want you to know that I find your thoughts on the whole range of issues that you discuss (whether parsha, halakha, communal politics, etc) to be well thought out, refreshing, and not a knee-jerk opinion based on which "camp" you are aligned with. It's really great.

Jenny's a pseudonym. Feel free to remark.

Regarding the concept of ein mukdam u'meuchar batorah, which should definitely be more difficult to claim when we're dealing with one parsha or timeline, there's a Tosafot at the beginning of brachot (i think 7b)who talks about EMUMBT with regards to Avraham's fear and the bris ben habesarim, which seems to be one continuous story. I don't have it in front of me, but I seem to recall that Tos thinks this is a legitimate reading. Nevertheless, it seems like a huge flaw in the Professor's thesis.

Finally, while you're right that often philosophical concerns do lead many meforshim to comment the way they do, here there's the philosophical issue regarding the donkey being able to see an angel (which seems to perhaps be kabbalistic, or sod - while the Ramban doesn't label it as such, coming from him, I would lean that way), but the pshat problem regarding the fact that neither Bilaam nor the "Narrator" makes a big deal over the fact that a donkey opens its mouth and starts talking. I think that this is a bigger concern with regard to determining pshat than the issue of miracles.

joshwaxman said...

nice name choice, then.

and good points. and thanks.

kt,
josh

mmatitya said...

Jenny: The fact that the incident with the donkey is a dream doesn't appear to fit in with the simple reading of the text, which states that Bilaam woke up in the morning, went with the officers, and only then did the whole incident unfold. If it was a dream that took place the night the second set of officers came, the incident with the donkey should have been recorded first, and only then Bilaam went with them.

joshwaxman: in terms of Professor Levine's thesis, i agree that it is slightly problematic. one could try to kvetch and claim that even the going with the princes of moav was part of the dream, but he does not claim that, as part of his proof that it is a dream is that the sarei moav don't figure at all in the interactions with the donkey. yet he didn't overlook something so basic in proposing his peshat. rather, i would guess that he is saying something akin to "ain mukdam ume'uchar batorah".

I understand Levine's interpretation slightly differently: The dream is introduced/summarized in 22:20, and then the full description of the dream begins with "And Bilaam got up in the morning" (22:21) all the way until the angel says "Go with the men; however, the thing that I shall tell you is what you shall say" (22:35). In other words, the part about embarking on the journey together with his servants and with Balak's officers was indeed part of the dream, at its start. This makes perfect sense, because Bilaam was picturing himself as accepting Balak's invitation and traveling, and this is exactly the way he expected to go about it -- i.e., to leave home together with his servants and with the Moavite officers. However, once the dream progressed to the part about the donkey talking and the angel, the servants and officers simply disappeared, because they were irrelevant to that part of the story. Such things happen in dreams.

I would also note that if one does not interpret the text this way, then an anomaly appears: In 22:21, it says, "[Bilaam] went with the officers of Moav", and then in 22:35, it says again, "Bilaam went with the officers of Balak". If the Torah already stated that Balak was travelling with Balak's officers, then it is very peculiar for this to be repeated in the middle of the story. On the other hand, this problem disappears if we understand the first statement to be part of Bilaam's dream, and the second one to be a description of what actually happened the following morning.

Levine doesn't write this explicitly in his article, but I believe that this is his intent, and it certainly is the interpretation most consistent with his thesis.

As it happens, my daughter's bat mitzva celebration was last night, and Prof. Levine's interpretation of this story was a central component in her drasha, which I helped her prepare. In it, she addresses precisely this point about the repetition of the statement that Balak went with the Moavite officers.

If you would like to see it, you can read the full text of her drasha in Hebrew here, and in English here.

The discussion of Levine's thesis comprises the first half of the drasha. The second half is based upon R. Elhanan Samet's understanding of the underlying symbolism in the story of the donkey and the angel -- which happens to tie in perfectly with your own explanation that "Bilaam was his donkey".

joshwaxman said...

thanks. interesting -- that works out nicely.

in terms of the anomaly of the repetition, i don't think Rashi et al. have such a great difficulty. since they are continuing on their way, after this interlude, the pasuk would repeat it. plus, as a further fulfillment of the instruction of the malach in the beginning of pasuk 35.

still, one can indeed seize upon the repetition and explain it in this way.

kt,
josh

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