The Talking Donkey
This Torah portion features the strange episode of the confrontation between the gentile prophet Bilaam and the malach (messenger) of G-d, which features a verbal exchange between Bilaam and his donkey. Abarbanel points out the obvious difficulties with this narrative. A speaking donkey is clearly a miracle, and G-d only performs miracles out of absolute necessity. If G-d’s intention was to prevent Bilaam from cursing the Jewish nation He could have simply appeared to him in a dream or vision without invoking such a bizarre scenario with a talking animal that is capable of seeing a messenger of Gd who remains invisible to the prophet Bilaam.
Bilaam believed that G-d relates to the Jewish People in two different ways. He realized that G-d has a special relationship with the nation, a Divine Providence and intervention which prevail over the natural forces and influences of the physical universe. He believed, however, that they were also subject to these natural forces as well, and would manifest themselves through destructions and exiles that the nation would suffer. This is what he intended to convey to Balak. G-d, on the other hand, wanted to prevent Bilaam from saying anything other than the exact words that G-d wanted him to say. Giving the donkey the power of speech was a dramatic way of demonstrating to Bilaam that G-d alone grants the power of speech.
Abarbanel goes on to elucidate the nature of the relationship between natural forces and Divine Providence. Bilaam began his “career” as an astrologer and sorcerer, with knowledge of how events on earth were influenced by the stars. Once he became a prophet he understood that there was a concept of Divine Providence whereby G-d acted directly, and not through the influence of the stellar configurations. However, Bilaam was uncertain whether Divine Providence could prevail over the natural order or, vice-versa, if the natural order always remained in place. He understood the latter possibility from the fact that G-d had told him, “Do not curse this nation, for it is blessed.” He took this to mean that by cursing them and bringing down the natural order to their detriment, he could overcome their special blessing from G-d. In his mind, G-d was instructing him not to curse them in order to prevent this from happening.
In order to remove this mistaken notion from his mind, G-d used the situation with the malach and the talking donkey as a metaphorical lesson. The moving donkey represents the motion of the heavenly bodies. Bilaam, the rider of the donkey, represents the separate force that sets them in motion. The malach represents G-d’s Divine Providence, as it says in Psalms “He will command his angels for you, to protect you in all your ways.” When the donkey sees the malach he immediately turns away, to demonstrate that the natural order must give way to G-d’s Divine Providence. Bilaam’s attempt to force the donkey back onto its proper path demonstrates that the movements of the heavenly bodies and their influences below are the result of the constant direction of the forces that set them in their proper path. Sometimes there is a collision between the natural order and Divine Providence, such that each one prevents the other from expressing itself fully. In such a case, Divine Providence will always emerge victorious. This is illustrated by the passage of the donkey through a narrow lane between two fences. Bilaam, who represents the director of these heavenly movements, scrapes his foot against the fence when the donkey moves aside for the malach. Not only must the natural order yield to Divine Providence when they clash, but its influence will be “injured” — i.e., reduced — just as Bilaam’s foot was injured, while the malach remains unscathed.
Additionally, there are situations where there is no room at all for both. Only one can be expressed. This is illustrated by the next incident in the narrative, where the passage is so narrow that the donkey cannot move aside at all. This was Bilaam’s ultimate dilemma. What happens when they are in absolute and total opposition? In this case the natural order gives way totally to the Divine Providence, as is illustrated by the final act of the donkey — crouching down before the malach. It is at this point that G-d opens Bilaam’s eyes to enable him to see the malach,and to understand the answer to his question. There are times when the Divine Providence supersedes the natural order, but there is never a time that the natural order can supersede Divine Providence. It is at this point that Bilaam is forced to admit that he has sinned by trying to curse the Jewish nation.