In Parshas Balak - the second portion read this week - Bilaam, the great prophet, is hired by Balak, the King of Midian, to curse the Jewish people. Bilaam was renowned as not only a prophet, but as an expert soothsayer and magician.
While on the way to curse the Jewish people, G-d communicates with Bilaam and tells him not curse them. Bilaam ignores G-d’s commands.
When G-d saw that Bilaam was not listening to Him, He sent him a different type of message.
Bilaam was travelling on a donkey on his way to curse the Jewish people. Suddenly the donkey veered from the path, as G-d had sent a messenger to stand there and impede the donkey’s progress (unbeknownst to Bilaam, as he could not see the G-d’s messenger). Every way the donkey tried to turn, the messenger was blocking him. Bilaam kept on striking the donkey, attempting to get the donkey to return to the path. Finally the donkey turned to Bilaam: “G-d opened the mouth of the donkey and said to Bilaam, ‘What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?’ (Numbers 22:22-28).
The Mishna in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers; Chapter 5 Mishna 9) states that the mouth of the donkey that spoke to Bilaam was created by twilight after the sixth day. Twilight is a dichotomy - it is the end of the day, but also the beginning of the next day (in Judaism the day follows the night). So while the donkey’s mouth had a physical element to it, so it was included in the first six days, it also had a spiritual element, so it was created on the twilight of Shabbos. Shabbos was created in order to give us an opportunity to acknowledge G-d as creator of the world.
The classic commentator Seforno notes that when the donkey spoke to Bilaam, it was in order to inspire him to make amends with G-d and listen to Him. It is the ultimate manifestation of Divine Providence that G-d would put words into the mouth of the donkey to speak with Bilaam in order to make it easier for him to make amends.
What was Bilaam’s response when the donkey asked why he struck it? “Because you mocked me.” Most people when spoken to by a donkey would register a modicum of shock or disbelief. Bilaam tried to argue with the donkey.
Looking at it superficially, our first instinct is to laugh at Bilaam for his foolishness, for not seeing the obvious message. The moral of this story must be to not ignore the obvious. But if we look at the history of the Jewish people we will see that on many occasions we have gotten messages from G-d no less obvious than being spoken to by a donkey.
When we live in a world where countries that support terrorism and murder get nothing more than a slap on the wrist because they are only murdering Jews, this is a strong message for us. When we look at our history, our stubborn survival despite over three thousand years of persecution, this too is a message. Our history is filled with these messages.
May we merit to hear them and bring the Messiah.