God’s Laughter: Making Fun of Balaam
By Rabbi Uri C. Cohen
Who can refute a sneer?
–William Paley (1743-1805)
Mockery is a more powerful weapon than murder. True, murder tends to cramp the style of the murdered. But it does not necessarily weaken them; often their legacy and legend live on. Martyrs lose their life but inspire others to follow them. (The luckiest martyrs get their own religion!) They can be alive even in death. Mockery, on the other hand, weakens the mocked and makes them look silly. The mocked lose their reputation and inspire others to abandon them. They can be dead even in life. As novelist Milan Kundera put it, “No great movement designed to change the world can bear to be laughed at or belittled. Mockery is a rust that corrodes all it touches.”<1>
With this in mind, we can understand the Talmud’s proclamation, “All mockery (leitzanut) is prohibited except for mockery of idol worship (avodah zarah).”<2> Since mockery – or, as we call it today, cynicism – is destructive, we may not use it against what is merely annoying, but only against what is evil. Make no mistake, though – this permission is not limited to avodah zarah. Rav Hutner points out, “It is clear that this permission to mock applies to all the aspects of evil. It is definitely permitted to mock every bit of evil, and everything considered wrong.”<3> Why, then, does the gemara formulate it in terms of avodah zarah? Rav Hutner answers that idol worship is the ultimate extreme of respecting evil, and mockery knocks down that respect.<4> A different approach is formulated by Professor John E. Benson: “[O]ur basic human problem is that we have a strange, uncontrollable desire to worship idols. We feel an inner need to trust something utterly, and we prefer something close at hand like wealth, another person or our nation. So we blind ourselves to the transient nature of all that exists in this world… We are caught in a circle of deceit. Now, it is this circle of self-deception that humor attacks. . . . People who put on airs, who think they are bigger than they really are, deserve the shrieks of laughter that naturally arise from earth and heaven.”<5>
Heaven? Did he say laughter from heaven? Yes! In mocking evil we are fulfilling the mitzvah of Vehalakhta biderakhav(imitating Hashem), since Hashem sets the example by laughing at our enemies! This is explicit in the second chapter ofTehillim: “Why do nations conspire, and peoples plot in vain? [Why do] kings of the earth take their stand, and rulers intrigue together against Hashem and His anointed? [They say,] ‘Let’s burst their bonds, and throw their ropes off us!’ He who is enthroned in heaven laughs; Hashem mocks them.”<6> Professor Benson comments, “Here God the judge ridicules idolaters and self-serving people who foolishly arrogate to themselves divine prerogatives. Ignorance and pretensions of absoluteness are often the target of humor’s arrows. Like a radar-controlled missile seeking its target, humor goes out seeking pomposity to puncture its balloon. And God’s humor is no exception; it seems to delight in laying low the haughty, in humiliating the arrogant.”<7>
Understanding that Hashem mocks our enemies can explain the existence of Parashat Balak. After all, why couldn’t the Torah summarize the story here the way it does in Devarim 23:5-6 and in Yehoshua 24:9-10 – Balak hired Balaam to curse us, but because Hashem loves us, He turned the curse into a blessing! Wouldn’t that be good enough to get the point across? Even if you say that Hashem wanted to share with us the beautiful blessings of Balaam, which take up part of Chapter 23 and most of Chapter 24, that still doesn’t explain the detailed focus on Balaam before the blessing. And how about the story of the talking donkey (presumably the inspiration for the talking Donkey in the Shrek movies)? According to Pirkei Avot (5:6), that was one of the few special miracles whose potential Hashem created right before the first Shabbat. Why do that miracle at all?
The answer seems to be that Hashem chose both to make the donkey speak and to tell us the whole story in order to mock and ridicule Balaam. After all, if we were to read Balaam’s story here without the donkey story (22:22-35), we might get the impression that Balaam is not such a bad guy! He piously proclaims over and over that he must submit to Hashem’s will and do whatever Hashem wants. That’s the public Balaam. The private Balaam, however, removes his mask and shows anger, violence and murderousness! Hashem makes the donkey speak and then tells us the story so that we could see Balaam’s true face – our enemy<8> – and jeer at him in general. Professor David Marcus spells out the details of the Torah’s ironic portrayal:
“It is ironic that Balaam, who elsewhere (24:3-4) boasts of his prowess as a professional seer, cannot see what is so obvious to a donkey! . . . .
“It is ironic that the one who elsewhere (24:16) boasts that he ‘obtains knowledge from the Most High’ has to acknowledge (22:34) that he did not know (Tanchuma, Balak 10).
“It is ironic that the seer who normally exercises great power with his words, and of whom it is said earlier (22:6) that ‘he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed,’ cannot control his own donkey with words, but has to use a stick (Tanchuma, Balak 9). . . .
“It is ironic that the man of words is reduced to using brute force, whereas the brute (his donkey) teaches him with words. Balaam is thereby shown to be more of a brute than his donkey! The Midrash notes the irony in this situation. Here was this donkey, the most stupid of all beasts, and there was the wisest of all wise men. Yet as soon as she opened her mouth he could not stand his ground against her (Numbers Rabba 20:14) . . . .
“The Midrash also comments on the irony of the situation that the one who has set out to destroy a whole nation with words needs a sword to kill his donkey: ‘If Balaam could not kill his donkey without a sword, how was he going to be able to destroy a whole people with just words?’ (Numbers Rabba 20:21) . . . .”<9>
But wait, there’s more. Believe it or not, this list is not exhaustive. Professor Marcus devotes two pages to the ironies, two pages to the parodies, and three pages to the ridicules of Balaam in the donkey story. Here are a few of the ridicules:
“Balaam is ridiculed . . . in a number of ways. He is placed in undignified situations by having his foot squeezed against the fence and by the donkey falling down with him on its back. He is ridiculed by his impetuous rage because he gets angry with his donkey and repeatedly beats her even though she had just saved his life. He is ridiculed by not seeming to notice the fact that his donkey was talking, as though arguing with a talking donkey was a natural and ordinary phenomenon. He is ridiculed by the contrast shown between him and his donkey. In some respects, the donkey and he have changed places. Balaam, by unjustifiably beating the donkey, has become brutish – he has become like a donkey! The donkey, on the other hand, has become like a seer! Not only can she, like a seer, see the angel, but like a wise sorcerer, she uses her intelligence to save both her life and that of her master. Moreover, like a master of words, she is able to respond to the one who has just beaten her in measured tones.”<10>
It’s also possible that Hashem intends us to read the conversations between Balaam and Balak as a comedy mocking them.<11>
Finally, Rabbi Dr. Shubert Spero (who made aliyah from Cleveland to Yerushalayim) argues that earlier in the parashah, the back-and-forth between Balaam and Balak’s messengers serves to puncture Balaam’s balloon. Though he tells them that God has commanded him not to curse the Jews, they report to Balak simply that “Balaam doesn’t want to come with us” (22:14). Accordingly, Balak sends more money – and hey, what do you know – Balaam agrees! In other words, everyone except for Balaam assumes that his God-talk is just a pretense; it’s all about the Benjamins (or whoever’s face was on their money). Rabbi Dr. Spero sums up that the point of Parashat Balak is “to debunk the false notions of the age and to poke fun at the pretenses of the self-serving men who deceitfully claim to have the power to ‘hear the words of God,’ ‘to see the visions of the Almighty’ and to ‘know the knowledge of the Most High’ (23:14, 16). God is mocking and playing with Balaam. . . .”<12>
One possible lesson from all this is that making fun of our people’s enemies is legitimate and even praiseworthy. We do it on Purim when we react to the name of the genocidal Haman with gleeful noise.<13> And Mel Brooks does it in his movie and play, “The Producers.” Without trying to find humor in the Holocaust, Brooks focuses on ridiculing the Nazis. By shooting down the Nazis with mocking humor,<14> Brooks does to our recent enemies what Hashem did to our ancient enemy Balaam.<15>
- Milan Kundera,The Joke(1967; tr. 1982), part 6, chap 18.
- Talmud Bavli, Megillah25b. Despite the word “prohibited,” it’s possible that this statement is one of piety and not halakhah; cf. Sdei Chemed, kelalei haposkim 16:12 (Vol. 9, p. 188). However, Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 5, condemns mockery as one of the main obstacles to spiritual accounting (zehirut).
- Rav Yitzchak Hutner,Pachad Yitzchak,Purim, 1:1 (pp. 27-28).
- Ibid., 1:4-5 (pp. 29-30).
- John E. Benson, “The Divine Sense of Humor,”Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 22 (Summer 1983), p. 194.
- Psalms2:1-4. Hashem mocks in 37:13 and 59:8 as well. Although the Gemara refers to Hashem laughing happily (Bava Metzia59b) and playing (Avodah Zarah 3b), Divine laughter in Tanakh is mocking. Another Gemara reconciles the two types of laughter by saying that Hashem laughs at evil people in this world, and laughs with righteous people in the next world (Shabbat30b).
- Benson,op. cit. Along the same lines, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm writes, “The ironical points to the moral that man must not overreach. Irony results when man’s pretenses are punctured, when his arrogance is deflated, when his much-vaunted security turns out to be dust and ashes, when his virtues look seamy, when his achievements prove baseless.” See Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, “The Irony of Passover,” in The Yeshiva University Haggada (New York, 1985), p. 14. Reprinted in his Seventy Faces, vol. 2 (Jersey City: Ktav, 2002), p. 53.
- Compare the following commentary by the Chassidic Rebbe, R’ Yitzchak of Vorki (cited inMidrash Chakhamim). On the question in Pirkei Avot (5:19), “What’s the difference between the students of Our Father Abraham and the students of Balaam the Evil?,” he challenges: “This is problematic. Why doesn’t it say ‘between Our Father Abraham’ himself ‘and Balaam the Evil’ himself? Why say ‘between the students’? In truth, when it came to the difference between Our Father Abraham and Balaam the Evil himself, not everyone would be able to recognize their essence. This is because Balaam the Evil was a hypocrite, and portrayed himself in the image of Our Father Abraham; it would appear to people as if God made this one parallel that one. Whereas the difference between their students would be recognizable: Our Father Abraham’s students separate for innocence, and Balaam the Evil’s students separate for evil.” Notice that Pirkei Avot there cites a verse comparing Balaam’s students to “people of bloodshed and deceit.”
- Dr. David Marcus,From Balaam to Jonah: Anti-Prophetic Satire in the Hebrew Bible(Providence: Brown University Press, 1995), pp. 32-33. However, according to the Midrash, Hashem actually gave Balaam back some of his dignity, by immediately killing the donkey. “God cared for the dignity of that villain, and did not allow it to be said that this was the animal which had shamed Balaam” (Numbers Rabba 20:14).
- Marcus, p. 34.
- I don’t remember where I first heard this suggestion, but ever since then, when reading those back-and-forths, I imagine that Balaam is Abbott the straight man, and Balak is Costello the excitable man.Try it!
- Rabbi Dr. Shubert Spero, “Multiplicity of Meaning as a Device in Biblical Narrative,”Judaism34:4 (Fall 1985), pp. 471-472.
- Cf. Rabbi Shimon Apisdorf,The One Hour Purim Primer(Baltimore: Leviathan Press, 1995), pp. 25-26: “There is also another side to laughter. It cuts things down to size… Haman built a gallows upon which to hang Mordechai, and suddenly Haman himself is hung on those very gallows. The thirteenth day of Adar had been decreed as a day of destruction for the Jewish people; and in a flash it became a moment of salvation. Purim is a time for tapping into the power of laughter. We realize that no matter how bleak things seem, we must never give up hope. And when we dress like our alter ego, like a couch potato, a beauty queen or president of the United States – we laugh – and cut our nemesis down to size.”
- Mel Brooks told an interviewer: “When I was a soldier in World War II, I heard about death camps at Auschwitz.And I thought, How do we get even with these terrible people? Do you put them against the wall and shoot them? How? Ridicule! You make the world laugh at these Nazis; shoot them down with humor.” Cited in Michael Elkin, “On Golden Brooks,” The Jewish Exponent, December 18, 2003, p. 54.
- On the other hand, one could argue that as long as there are still Holocaust survivors who suffered because of the Nazis, any such humor is inappropriate.