So magical is the capacity of Balaam’s donkey to talk that it is listed in Pirkei Avot (5:6) as one of the wonders created at twilight on the eve of Shabbat, along with other mysterious things such as Miriam’s well or manna.
Kli Yakar (Rabbi Ephraim Shlomo, 16th century) suggests that the unlikely event of an ass having the power of speech was for the honour of Israel only — just as Balaam was given the sorcerer’s power to prophesy. Neither was worthy of such gifts.
For Kli Yakar, a non-Israelite sorcerer and animal were valuable only as mouthpieces for the Eternal.
Yet we can view them in a different light. Small lowly creature as she is, the ass demonstrates an animal can have worth and integrity. Walt Whitman, American poet wrote of animals: “I think I could turn and live with animals they are so placed and self-contain’d… they do not sweat and whine about their condition/ They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins/ Not one is dissatisfied.”
Secondly, Balaam’s eventually sees God’s sole sovereignty and goodness as he turns from omens towards the wilderness. One does not need to be Jewish to relate to God and recognise the potential therein. It is for this that Balaam’s blessing for Israel has entered every siddur. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob,” (24:5).
It is a reminder of the worth of the non-Israelite in bringing the best of lessons and the best of blessings. And of course, the parashah takes its name from Balak, the Moabite king who witnesses the blessing and goes on his way.