One of the most puzzling events in Parshat Balak is when the donkey of Bilaam opens his mouth and speaks. “L’Havdeel”, this sounds like something right out of a children’s fairy tale, and it is a bit surprising to find such a thing in our Holy Torah.
However, a deeper probe into our parsha will reveal something no less astonishing and certainly no less serious. We are referring to the very fact that Bilaam was a prophet.
The Gentile: No Potential for Prophecy
Behold, it is a basic tenet in Judaism that the gentile is not capable of reaching a level of prophesy. In his masterpiece “The Kuzari”, Rabbi Yehuda Halevi explains that there are five levels of creation (inanimate, plant life, animals, Gentile, Israel), and what differentiates between the fourth level of creation (the being that speaks) and the fifth level, Israel, is the potential for each and every Jew to reach the level of prophesy. In other words, the difference between Gentiles and Jews is a spiritually qualitative difference, which is evidenced by the Jew’s ability to reach the highest level of holiness and closeness to G-d – prophesy.
If so, we are left with a huge question: How is Bilaam a prophet? How can he merit prophesy if he is supposed to be incapable of it?!
Perhaps one will argue that Bilaam really worked on himself spiritually and somehow reached a high level of holiness and purity. Perhaps he prepared himself through the learning of G-d’s wisdom, and corrected his attributes, doing all the things the Rambam stipulates must be done for one to reach the level of prophesy. This argument is absolutely refuted, as our sages teach us that Bilaam was totally wicked. Not only was he wicked, but it is said that he even mated with his donkey! You can’t get much lower than that!
Crossing Over Natural Boundaries
Upon examination, we find that these two extraordinary occurrences come together in one explanation. Even though Bilaam was a gentile and even though he was evil, G-d decided to give him prophesy, as unfit as he may have been to receive it. The reasons for this are brought down in various commentaries and midrashim, which we won’t delve into. Having said this, it is clear that G-d did things which are outside the normal order of the world He created. That is why the prophesies of Bilaam were something external and almost mechanical to him, and not derived from any kind of inner spiritual elevation. Thusly on a verse describing one of Bilaam’s “prophesies”. “And G-d uncovered Bilaam’s eyes” (Numbers, 22:31), the Ramban comments: “From what the scripture states we learn that if Bilaam really was a true prophet -why did G-d have to uncover his eyes at the sight of the angel as the scripture describes is the case for a person who has not achieved prophesy?..”
But Bilaam didn’t grasp this, and became arrogant because of his prophesy,as it says in Pirke Avot 5:19, “the followers of Bilaam were haughty of spirit.” And is not arrogance one of the major characteristics which is supposed to hinder prophesy?!
Meaning of the Talking Donkey
And so, when the wicked Bilaam insisted on exploiting this lofty acquisition in order to curse the Jewish People, G-d sent him a hint to “bring him down to earth”. G-d caused the donkey to open his mouth and speak, since the only thing separating man from beast is the power of speech. By doing so, G-d was showing Bilaam that he should not boast of his ability to prophesy, since itis nothing more than a temporary, external ability which G-d threw his way for a very specific purpose. For in the very same way, G-d can, if he so chooses, grant the donkey who is the beast of all beasts, with the lofty power of speech. Furthermore, the donkey’s speech was not like a human being’s speech. It was simply a mechanical action, without an inner understanding. The Ramban explains (23:16): “She (Bilaam’s donkey) did not know why this was done to her at that moment but rather she was forced (to speak)…” The power of speech was thrown her way against her will, for itis what G-d wanted at that particular moment. Similarly, Bilaam had to understand that his prophesy, as well, was nothing more than an external, temporary phenomenon. He was unworthy of prophesy by way of his spiritual makeup, for he was a Gentile, and he was unworthy by way of his deeds, forhe was wicked.
Bilaam and the Donkey: Conceptually the Same
Thusly, the power of prophesy which was given to Bilaam was for a specific purpose. In this matter, Bilaam did not have free choice, as Rashi point sout (23:16): “G-d placed upon him a bridle and a bit in his mouth, as a manputs in the mouth of a beast (a bit), to make it go in whatever direction hedesires. He (the Almighty) said to him: against your will you shall return to King Balak (of Moav).
What a wonderous thing! It turns out that the arrogant Bilaam, who though the had ascended above and beyond the average man, was really comparable to abeast who is led along the way with bait before his mouth. This is how the Kli Hayakar sums it up: “It seems that this (the donkey’s speech) was also a momentary need, to show him that he resembles this donkey, which does not speak by nature, and for the honor of Israel alone did G-d open her mouth. Similarly is Bilaam, who G-d opened his mouth momentarily in prophesy for the honor of Israel.”