The Torah in Parashat Balak tells the amusing story of Bilam’s journey from his homeland to Moav, where he was summoned for the purpose of placing a curse upon Benei Yisrael. Three times during the journey, his donkey either veered from the path or stopped because he saw an obstruction that was invisible to Bilam, and on all three occasions, Bilam struck the donkey. After the third beating, God made the donkey speak, and it berated Bilam for his violence.
A famous Mishna in Avot (5:6) lists the mouth of Bilam’s donkey as one of the ten things that “were created on Friday, at twilight.” Meaning, in the closing moments of the six days of creation, just before God set the natural order into motion, He introduced these ten exceptions, foreseeing the time when the natural order will need to be temporarily suspended. These included phenomena such as the ground’s opening to devour the leaders of Korach’s revolt, and the miraculous stone in the desert which produced water for Benei Yisrael. These phenomena were “built in,” as it were, to the natural order, as these exceptions to the laws of nature were foreseen already at the time of creation, when God prearranged that they should occur.
We might adopt a symbolic approach to explain the significance of the exception of Bilam’s donkey’s faculty of speech. Normally, we receive instructions and guidance from those more intelligent than us, from people with more knowledge, insight, wisdom or life experience. The standard, natural way the world operates is that knowledgeable people like Bilam, who prided himself over knowing “God’s mind” (“yodei’a da’at elyon” – 24:16), who was world renowned for his prophetic powers, instruct and impart knowledge to the “donkey” – to the ignorant. However, although this is the standard direction in which knowledge and wisdom is transmitted, God created the world in such a way that allows for exceptional circumstances where the “donkey” instructs and reprimands the “wise.” He made it possible for those with little knowledge, understanding or experience to have what to teach the brilliant, accomplished scholars. Although this is not the standard arrangement, it can and does happen, as a sort of built-in exception to the general rule.
If this symbolic reading is correct, then the Mishna here bids us to be open to learn and gain from all people, including those who strike us as having nothing to teach. There are times when even the “donkey” can teach the “prophet,” when an exceedingly wise individual is able to learn and gain insight from a far less knowledgeable person. We must therefore remain open and attentive to lessons we can learn from anybody with whom we come in contact, recognizing the potential that every person has to teach us something valuable and enhance our knowledge and understanding.