Balaam’s Donkey, the Gift of Language

The Israelites are encamped on the border of Moab. Fearful of the Israelites’ power, the Moabite King Balak sends messengers to hire the wizard Baalam to pronounce an imprecation against Israel so the Moabites can defeat Israel in battle.

After receiving the delegation, Baalam sought counsel from God, who told him that he should not curse the Israelites “for they are blessed.” Balak refused to accept this answer and twice sent Moabite princes in an effort to persuade Baalam to change his mind. Eventually, the Almighty permitted Baalam to accompany the princes, but on the condition he spoke God’s message.

During the journey, Balaam’s donkey encountered an armed angel blocking its way. Three times this happened and three times Baalam, who does not see the angel, struck the donkey. Now, the animal speaks out, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times? . . . I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Finally Balaam sees the angel from whom the ass protected him and, realizes he has sinned by accepting Balak’s invitation; he offers to go back. The angel tells him he may proceed, on the condition that he speaks only the words God tells him.

What is the meaning of this fable?

Against Balaam’s thoughtless fury, the donkey answers calmly and with

reason. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah Number 20: 14) expands this observation. They ask why it is that animals do not use speech? Our Sages respond, “Had they been able to speak, it would have been impossible to put them to the service of people or to stand one’s ground against them. Here was this ass, the most stupid of beasts, and there was the wisest of the wise, yet as soon as she opened her mouth, he could not stand his ground against her.” Therefore, conclude the rabbis, “God has consideration for the embarrassment of people, and knowing their needs, shut the mouth of beasts.”

In many ways, our use of language differentiates us from the other species. Other animals are sentient; not too many are sapient. Our sapience is exhibited by our use of language. This is our blessing that helps define us as human beings.

We have the ability to communicate complex and abstract ideas. Beginning with spoken language, independently, several human cultures developed the written word, a means to communicate with others over thousands of miles or thousands of years. Human language is based on a dual code, wherein a finite number of meaningless elements, e.g. sounds, letters or gestures, can be combined in infinite ways to form units of meaning, words and sentences . The symbols and grammatical rules of any particular language are largely arbitrary, meaning that the system can only be acquired through social interaction.

Human language is also recursive. Without developing linguistic theory, Our memory and language enables us to render meaningful phrases such as “David’s sister’s husband’s uncle’s boss.”

Through language we have built civilizations, developed science, many academic disciplines, and the arts. We do not have to learn everything from personal experience, because through language we can learn from the experience of others.

Along with the gift of language our tradition teaches that we must be morally responsible. What might animals say if they could speak? They might wonder why we corrupt our honorable characteristics.

Human beings demonstrate a level of aggression and cruelty to other persons that would be truly “beastly” except that beasts do not behave this way.

Balaam’s donkey was an embarrassment to him because the ass did a better job of acting nobly than the wizard. Blessed and cursed by our gift of reason, we rely on our brains just enough to get ourselves in trouble, but not enough to build a society that is more just and compassionate, and to live more thoughtful and honorable lives. May we be blessed to communicate to one another how we can do a better job.