“What have I done to you that you struck me this three times?
Children have a sense of wonder at the ordinary. Why the wind blows, what thunder actually is, the way the spores of a dandelion fly.
Great artists and scientists often possess the rare ability to retain this child-like wonder. Van Gogh could look at a flower as if he had never seen a flower before. Einstein wondered what it would look like if you could travel on a beam of light.
As Balaam travels, alone, on his mission in this week’s sidrah to curse the Jewish people, his donkey disobediently turns away from the road and starts moving through a field. Balaam becomes angry and strikes the donkey. And then, something remarkable happens. His donkey turns to him and says, “What have I done to you that you struck me these three times?”. Balaam’s response is, “Because you mocked me”. His response is not, “What?! A talking donkey?”
He is so consumed by the goal that he has set, by the road he is taking in his life, that this most bizarre of miracles goes entirely unregistered. Quite simply, this talking donkey is getting in his way.
According to the Spanish kabbalist and medical doctor, Ramban (one of the key commentators on the Torah in the last thousand years), the Almighty gave Balaam’s donkey the power of speech in order to demonstrate His complete control over nature, underlining the futility of Balaam’s mission. Instead of even noticing this, however, Balaam grotesquely enters into a full-blown argument with the donkey.
For most of us, as our lives accumulate layers of routine and as we develop priorities as to what we consider important and unimportant, as we decide which road we are travelling on, we start to block out that which doesn’t fit into our plans. Part of the human struggle is not just to retain that wonderful appreciation a child has for the ordinary, but sometimes even to be able not to argue with the donkey — to notice, to look up, when the extraordinary, the incredible, happens.