“Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat (of creation), at twilight: the mouth of the earth, the mouth of the well, the speech of the donkey, the rainbow, the manna, the rod, the shamir worm, the script, the writing instrument, and the tablets. Others add: the demons, the burial place of Moses, the ram for our father Abraham. Some add: tongs, which must be made with tongs.” (Pirké Avot 5:8)
This week we read about the gentile prophet Bilaam and his donkey, who, upon being unjustly reprimanded, miraculously opens her mouth and tells her rider, “have I ever been unfaithful to you, warranting you to mistreat me so?” Uncomfortable with the idea of supernatural occurrences, the Mishnaic sages suggest that Bilaam’s donkey’s ability to speak was completely natural, programmed into nature from the very beginning. This attitude is a very modern scientific one – when we observe surprising phenomena, scientists know that there is always an explanation for them even if they haven’t yet arrived at it. Electricity wasn’t invented, it was merely discovered.
We ought to consider the Bilaam story from the opposite angle as well. There are so many things around us which don’t speak – animals, oceans, trees, even human beings who live far from us so that we can’t hear their words. What would they say if they had the opportunity to say something to us? Might they also say to us, “What have I done to you that you beat me these three times? Am I not your old donkey? You have been riding on me as far back as you remember. Have I ever endangered you?” (Num 22:28, 30)
Sadly, I fear they would speak that way if they could. Let’s learn to treat our environment and surroundings with the respect they all deserve!