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Parshat Balak – The Speaking Donkey

עֲשָׂרָה דְבָרִים נִבְרְאוּ בְּעֶרֶב שַׁבָּת בֵּין הַשְּׁמָשׁוֹת, וְאֵלּוּ הֵן, פִּי הָאָרֶץ, וּפִי הַבְּאֵר, וּפִי הָאָתוֹן, וְהַקֶּשֶׁת, וְהַמָּן, וְהַמַּטֶּה, וְהַשָּׁמִיר, וְהַכְּתָב, וְהַמִּכְתָּב, וְהַלּוּחוֹת. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף הַמַּזִּיקִין, וּקְבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁל משֶׁה, וְאֵילוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ. וְיֵשׁ אוֹמְרִים, אַף צְבָת בִּצְבָת עֲשׂוּיָה

Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath at twilight, and these are they: [1] the mouth of the earth, [2] the mouth of the well, [3] the mouth of the donkey, [4] the rainbow, [5] the manna, [6] the staff [of Moses], [7] the shamir, [8] the letters, [9] the writing, [10] and the tablets.[1]

Now they were not exactly the most inspiring words, or words to warn Balaam not to pursue his path. What made the donkey’s mouth so important that it had to be created just before Shabbat among the other 9 things that seem to be of far greater value.

I want to take a side-step to the rainbow. G-d created the rainbow also at the end of the sixth day. Today, we know that a rainbow is not a miracle. The rainbow is a natural phenomenon. When the sun shines at one side of the sky and there are clouds at the opposite side, a rainbow is formed by water drops in the clouds. The moment the rainbow appeared with Noah, that was the miracle. It was the manifestation, the manifestation of the possibility that was already there before. When Noah brought a sacrifice of thanksgiving to G-d and G-d made His covenant with Noah and his descendants, the rainbows were its sign. That was the moment its purpose became visible, a visible covenant sign. The promise that there would never again be an all-destroying flood.

So it is with all miracles observed by us. Everything was created during the six days of creation. Every miracle involving the use of something that seems new is actually using something that was already created. This idea is found in the Mishna, in Ethics of the Fathers 5:6.

Taking these thoughts to Balaam’s donkey, we can say that it is not in itself a miracle that a donkey can talk. So, even though we do not experience it in everyday life, the donkey can speak naturally. So, the miracle is not in the donkey’s speaking, but in the moment of disclosure of this ability of the donkey.[2] When there is a reason, a purpose for her to speak.

The purpose of the talking donkey is to completely humiliate Balaam.

The Gemara clarifies: What is meant by the claim that Balaam did not know the mind of his animal? When the princes of Moab saw that Balaam was riding on his donkey, they said to him: What is the reason that you do not ride upon a horse, which is more fitting for you? Balaam said to them: I am riding on a donkey because I left my horse in a meadow to graze. Immediately: “And the donkey said to Balaam: Am not I your donkey?” i.e., the donkey you always use. Balaam said to it: For carrying burdens only, not for riding.

The donkey further said to Balaam: “Upon which you have ridden.” Balaam said to it: Merely at irregular occurrences. The donkey said to him: “All your life long unto this day” (Numbers 22:30)[3]

It is G-d who gives speech, whether to a donkey or to a human being. It is a gift from Him. Balaam knew that he only would be able to speak the words of G-d …

וַיַּ֣עַן בִּלְעָ֗ם וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אֶל-עַבְדֵ֣י בָלָ֔ק אִם-יִתֶּן-לִ֥י בָלָ֛ק מְלֹ֥א בֵית֖וֹ כֶּ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֑ב לֹ֣א אוּכַ֗ל לַעֲבֹר֙ אֶת-פִּי֙ ד’ אֱלֹהָ֔י לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת קְטַנָּ֖ה א֥וֹ גְדוֹלָֽה׃

Balaam replied to Balak’s officials, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not do anything, big or little, contrary to the command of my G-d.(Numbers 22:18)

…  but still he wanted to push his own way and joined Balak’s officers in trying to curse the Israeli people.

The man hired to speak a curse, stood here with his mouth full of shame in front of Balak’s officers. Instead of having seen the signs as a prophet that he should not continue, it was a dumb donkey who had to reveal it to him. Despite all this, he goes ahead with his plan to go with the officers.

At times when Balaam must curse, he blesses the people of Israel. For it is G-d who blesses and curses. The people of Israel had already been blessed by G-d, and a blessing is not undone. The blessings that G-d gave and promised the Jewish people will remain blessings.[4] G-d is not a man that He changes His mind. (Numbers 23:19)

After Balaam blessed the Jews for the third time, Balak grew angry and told Balaam to leave. As he was leaving, Balaam turned to Balak and prophesied what would to happen to his people in the end of days and about the Messianic redemption.

אֶרְאֶ֙נּוּ֙ וְלֹ֣א עַתָּ֔ה אֲשׁוּרֶ֖נּוּ וְלֹ֣א קָר֑וֹב דָּרַ֨ךְ כּוֹכָ֜ב מִֽיַּעֲקֹ֗ב וְקָ֥ם שֵׁ֙בֶט֙ מִיִּשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּמָחַץ֙ פַּאֲתֵ֣י מוֹאָ֔ב וְקַרְקַ֖ר כׇּל־בְּנֵי־שֵֽׁת׃  

What I see for them is not yet,
What I behold will not be soon:
A star rises from Jacob,
A scepter comes forth from Israel;
It smashes the brow of Moab,
The foundation of all children of Seth. (Numbers 24:17)

The same mouth, the same source, can bless and curse.

Man is the only creature that G-d has blessed with the ability to speak. We can use our mouth to bless, and we can use our mouth to curse. The outcome for the person is the same – because it is G-d who blesses. But for us, who speak the words, it is not the same.

Let us use our mouth the right way. Let us bless others, let us use kind words. Let there not be two streams from the same source. Let us bless G-d, let us bless Israel and let us bless our fellowman.

May the words of my mouth and the silent musings of my hat be pleasing to Your Eternal, our G-d.

By Angelique Sijbolts


[1] Pirkei Avot 5:6
[2] Secrets of the Talking Ass
[3] Avodah Zerah 4b
[4] Rashi on 22:19
Balaam and Balak: The Full Story

With thanks to Rabbi. W. van Dijk for the inspiring question
With thanks to Rabbi Baruch Simcha for providing the direction in which I could find an answer

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