A Tale of Two Donkeys

This week the Torah teaches us the story of the donkey who spoke.

The Ribbono shel Olam had seen fit to grant Bilam, the son of Be’or, a lofty level of prophecy, and yet he chose to live a life of evil and destruction. Flagrantly disobeying Hashem’s order, he personally saddled his donkey and departed with the officers of Moav, fully intending to curse Bnei Yisrael. His action incurred the wrath of Hashem, and on the way a malach blocked his path with a sword in his hand.

Unlike its master, Bilam’s donkey perceived the presence of the angel and thrice veered to the side; Bilam responded by lashing out at the hapless animal. Hashem then opened the mouth of the donkey and it rebuked Bilam for his actions.

The Mishnah (Avos 5:8) lists the “mouth of the donkey” as one of the 10 things that were created at the twilight of the first Erev Shabbos of Creation. While some meforshim explain this to mean the ability for a donkey to eventually speak, others state that this very donkey was actually created at that time.

Accordingly, this animal — who presumably had survived the Mabul as one of the pair of donkeys in the teivah — was nearly 2,500 years old when she spoke up to Bilam.

Chazal (Pirkei Rabi Eliezer 31) reveal to us that this she-donkey was the mother of another famous donkey.

When Avraham Avinu faced the greatest test of his life — one whose merit continues to protect his descendants — it was on a donkey that he rode to the Akeidah. The Torah informs us that Avraham Avinu “saddled his donkey,” and later, when Avraham Avinu sees Har Hamoriah from the distance, he tells Yishmael and Eliezer, “Stay here by yourselves with the donkey…”

Later, it was on this very donkey that Moshe Rabbeinu rode from Midian to Mitzrayim on the mission from Hashem to lead Bnei Yisrael out of exile.

How did the donkey end up in Midian?

The Midrash Talpiyos relates that Avraham Avinu gave the donkey to Yitzchak, who in turn gave it to Yaakov. Since it would be Shevet Levi who would travel around to collect the maaser, Yaakov Avinu gave the donkey to Levi, who gave it to Kehas, who gave it to Amram, who in turn gave it to Moshe.

When Moshe Rabbeinu was forced to flee Mitzrayim, he did so on this very donkey. Decades later, when Hashem instructed him to return, he feared to take along the donkey. Stargazers had told Pharaoh that whoever possessed that donkey would be the savior of Bnei Yisrael, and the Egyptian king had therefore wanted to seize the animal. Hakadosh Baruch Hu, however, told Moshe that he had nothing to fear, and so he used the donkey to travel to Mitzrayim.

The Midrash Talpiyos suggests that 40 years later, when Moshe Rabbeinu walked up Har Nevo, where he was niftar and buried by Hashem, the donkey accompanied him. There it remains until this very day, awaiting the glorious day when it will be used to transport Moshiach ben Dovid, when he will take us out of exile.

What happened to this donkey’s elderly mother?

When Hashem revealed to Bilam the presence of the angel, the malach berated Bilam: “For what reason did you strike your she-donkey these three times? … The she-donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. Had she not turned away from me, I would now … have killed you and let her live!”

Rashi explains that these last words teach us that, in fact, the malach did kill the donkey.

After being created in the first week of Creation, and living some 2,500 years, the donkey was killed so that people should not say that Bilam was rebuked by an animal and he was unable to respond. For the Ribbono shel Olam has compassion for kvod habriyos — the dignity of man.

Hagaon Harav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt”l, points out that had Hashem allowed the donkey to live, it would have resulted in a kiddush Hashem: whoever would see it would have said, “This is the one whose mouth Hashem opened” (Sichos Mussar 36:32).

Bilam was an icon of evil. In Pirkei Avos we learn that the attributes of Bilam are the precise opposite of those of Avraham Avinu. While Avraham Avinu epitomized kindness and holiness, Bilam represented cruelty and degeneracy.

Nonetheless, the Ribbono shel Olam defended the honor of Bilam and spared him humiliation by putting the donkey to death.

Why is “human dignity” of such concern to us? Why did the Torah instruct us that we should literally be moser nefesh not to humiliate a fellow man?

Harav Chaim Shmulevitz explains that the gravity of the requirement to honor the dignity of another results from the inherent greatness of a human being. It is only because we do not grasp this that we wonder why we have to be so careful about our fellow man’s honor.

May the Ribbono shel Olam grant us the wisdom to take to heart the lesson we learn of the fate of the mother donkey, and properly honor our fellow man. In this merit, may we soon see Moshiach riding on that donkey’s son.