The She-Donkey Talks

“And Hashem opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Bilam, ‘What have I done to you that you should hit me these three times?”

Why does the Torah describe the speech of the she-donkey? The Ramban explains that this is meant to hint to Bilam that even if he tries to curse Bnei Yisrael, he will be unsuccessful, because the power of speech is in the hands of Hashem. Just as Hashem controls the mouth of the she-donkey, He also controls the mouth of Bilam.

It is conceivable to explain the matter slightly differently. Possibly, the Torah wants to emphasize the fact that the she-donkey has the ability to speak, highlighting that the supremacy of humankind over beast does not stem from the power of speech itself. Humanity’s advantage resides in its power of thought and its decision-making ability. Speech is merely a tool and a sign of humankind’s superiority, but man himself is not the focus of his own preeminence.

Bilam, whose power is speech, as Chazal tell us, sees in his speech his own superiority. Hashem wants to emphasize to Bilam: The power of speech itself does not constitute anything superior, for even the animals can talk! Nonetheless, Onkelos in his translation of the verse, “And man became a living being”, explains the phrase “living being” as “ruach memlala”, spirit of speech. Only when one speaks in a manner that expresses one’s great spirit and lofty ideas, then their speech signifies humanity’s uniqueness.

In the days of my youth I heard from my father of blessed memory poems from many poets. Among them, I heard a poem that expresses the point that we dealt with. I don’t remember who wrote it, but it seems to me that it was written about 200 years ago:

So that the fools shouldn’t think that they are men,

Since they say things- their mouth does move,

Thus, God also gave animals a mouth,

And opened the she-donkey’s to reprove.

This is the message that the Torah wants to convey to Bilam with the talking she-donkey. The value of humankind over beast is great, meaning, don’t search for value among speech itself. In other words: The Torah says to Bilam what we say every morning in Birchot HaShachar (nusach Sefard): “The superiority of humankind over beast is nothing, for everything is vanity, except for the pure soul…”.