Artist: Susie Lubell, USA/Israel
On first read of parshat Balak we encounter a ruler who, fearing the reputation and growing numbers of the Israelites, asks the prophet Bilam to curse them. And, in what has become one of the Torah’s most quotable moments, instead of cursing the Israelites, he blesses them. מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ יַעֲקֹב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל Ma tovu ohaleicha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael. How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob, your dwelling places, Oh Israel. It’s a colorful story, equal parts comedy, drama, magic and gore. There’s a paranoid ruler, a prophet, an angel, a plague, a massacre and a talking female donkey. My interpretation of this parasha focuses on two different but related narratives, one which focuses on the relationship between the prophet Bilam and his donkey and the second which surrounds the Israelites’ cyclical journey from a rogue nation to a civilized society. On the way to curse the Israelites, Bilam’s donkey stops when she sees an angel of God standing in their way. Bilam urges her to move ahead, as he does not see the angel, and when she refuses, he beats her. Finally the donkey says to him in a voice that resonates both as his companion and his servant, “Am I not your own donkey, which you have always ridden, to this day? Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” At which point God opens Bilam’s eyes so that he can see the Angel and heed God’s warning.
In my painting, Bilam and his donkey are depicted as a couple. Bilam is authoritative. He is holding his stick and has a grip on his woman as his property. She is demure. Fearful. Submissive. Domesticated. Beside her is a gloriously vibrant and twisted tree as a symbol and reminder of all that is feral and feminine. The tree is the memory of the Garden of Eden (and the incident of the serpent, the only other talking animal in the Torah), and it gently tugs at her, drawing her closer to her feminine strength, her unusual and precious gifts and her connection to the Spirit world. The Angel of God stands before them as a seagull, humble like the donkey she protects, winged like an angel and crowned to portray God’s power over Bilam. She is the Shechina in this story, the female incarnation of God.
Meanwhile, Bilam looks off toward the Israelites, thirty-eight years into their forty years of wandering in the desert. Like the Donkey, they are a people that have also been beaten into submission by an almighty figure. They act out; they, too are punished. Torah scholars have said that the blessing on their dwelling places refers to the way they are set up facing away from each other, supporting the development of a private and modest society. But even this far along in their journey they still falter, tempted by local women, engaging in sexual relations with other nations, causing God to unleash a terrible plague and the Israelite Pinchas to stab one such Israelite-foreign couple to death, for which he becomes a celebrated hero. Still, they are nearing the end of the wilderness journeys. They are succumbing to patriarchal civilization, as conveyed by the primary image of Bilam and the Donkey. They are moving into the suburbs, parceling out the subdivision and leaving the wilderness behind, for better or worse.
Susie Lubell is a self-taught artist and illustrator whose paintings often feature vibrant folk imagery coupled with powerful verse from Jewish teachings. Her work has been included in galleries and private collections worldwide including the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital of Palo Alto, which hosts the entire collection of her watercolor animal illustrations. She also creates lively ketubot for wedding and anniversary celebrations and whimsical illustrations for children. Prints of Susie’s work can be purchased online at www.susielubell.comCollect this Art