This week’s Torah reading of Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9) tells the story of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who—although he knows God wills it otherwise—seeks to curse the Israelites in exchange for wealth and honor. His jenny attempts to stop him and then, thanks to a miracle, scolds him for beating her. Although the talking ass is the best-remembered part of Balaam’s story, David Wolpe notes that it serves little narrative purpose. Why, then, did God make a donkey talk and, moreover, able to see an angel that is at first invisible to her master?
We may understand the purpose of the tale better if we invoke another donkey, known to the history of philosophy. It was named after the 14th-century philosopher Jean Buridan, [who imagined] a donkey equidistant between two bales of hay. The donkey, being hungry, has to decide which bale of hay to eat. But since he is exactly between the two, there is no rational basis for deciding he should move toward one bale or the other. As this is a donkey driven entirely by reason, he constantly argues with himself between two equally balanced propositions. In the course of his endless, fruitless deliberations, the donkey dies of starvation.
The point of the parable is that there must be a value or principle that overrides logic alone. Without a value—even if that value sometimes is expressed in simple impulse—there is no rationale that can drive our lives. The miracle in the Torah expresses the essential valuelessness of Balaam. He does not care for himself if he curses Israel or blesses Israel. He does not care if he treats his faithful donkey well or badly. He cannot see the angel because without a value system one is unable to see. He knows that he cannot do what God forbids, but that is a conclusion of sober calculation, not reverence.
To move through life with a devotion to reason alone is to be blind. Balaam thought himself enlightened because of the great prophetic powers with which he was endowed. Many gifted rationalists believe the same; how better to upend such a settled view than an absurdist marvel like a talking donkey.