The Gift of Speech

What Bilaam's donkey and under-represented minorities have in common.

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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

The strange story of Balaam, his talking donkey, and the blessings he bestowed on Israel is recounted in Parashat Balak.

After the Israelites successfully defended themselves against the attacking Amorites, the Moabite king, Balak, asked Balaam to curse the Israelites in order to weaken them. Following several rounds of negotiations with Balak's representatives and with God, Balaam accepted Balak's charge on the condition that he would only say what God told him to. AJWS Logo

On the journey, Balaam's donkey suddenly swerved off the road, pressed Balaam's foot against a wall alongside the path, and finally, simply sat down in the middle of the road. After each incident, Balaam beat the donkey, not seeing the angel of God that had blocked the donkey's path.

After the third beating, God "opened the donkey's mouth" and she asked Balaam: "What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?" God then revealed the angel to Balaam, and the angel reprimanded Balaam, who admitted his mistake. Bilaam then continued on towards Moab, where, much to Balak's chagrin, he repeatedly blessed the Israelites instead of cursing them.

Why the talking donkey? The story would not have been substantially different without it, and, at first read, it is difficult to see what it adds. This anomalous talking donkey did not escape Jewish commentators. Midrash Numbers Rabbah (20:14) explains that God "closed the mouth of the animal [all animals], for if she spoke, they [people] could not subject her and stand over her. For this [donkey] was the stupidest of creatures and this [Bilaam] was the wisest of the wise, and as soon as she spoke he could not stand before her."

Subjugation, in the rabbinic view, is made possible merely by the inability to speak. The donkey's sudden, surprising voice in this story flips the power dynamic, rendering Balaam powerless in the face of her newfound authority.

Speech is a profound expression of power--and the denial of it a crippling means of oppression--around the world. Many authoritarian governments impose strict censorship of media, preventing exposure of corruption and human rights abuses to the public.

In Somalia, journalists are not permitted to interview government officials and are heavily censored. Two journalists there were recently severely beaten by militiamen.  Even a government's written guarantee of protection for free speech is no guarantee of freedom of expression.

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Adina Gerver

Adina Gerver, a freelance writer and editor, is studying at the Advanced Scholars Program of the Pardes Institute in Jerusalem. She has served as assistant director of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning and program officer at the Covenant Foundation.