Thursday, July 05, 2012

you can't put the genie back in the bottle or the talking donkey back in the barn

Yesh lachkor: Is a talking donkey like Bilam had still a donkey, just one with special talents, or is it a different animal entirely -- maybe we shouldn't even call it an animal at all?

The Midrash tells us that after letting it have its say Hashem killed Bilam's donkey.  There are two reasons given: 1) So that people would not start worshiping this "magical" donkey; 2) For kavod habriyos of Bilam, so that people should not say this is the donkey that bested him.  The Midrash compares this to the din that requires killing an animal used for znus, because so long as the animal is alive people will continue to speak of the perverted act done by Ploni with it.

The Be'er Yosef questions the comparison drawn by the Medrash.  In the case of the animal used for znus, there was an aveira the animal and its master are associated with.  What aveira did the donkey of Bilam do? It was doing the mitzvah of acting as Hashem's agent to speak to Bilam!

He suggests that the lesson taken from the case of znus is that the criminal suffers enough by being killed; additional embarrassment suffered after death by having the stain of the crime perpetuated by the animal remaining alive is excessive punishment.  So too, as wicked as Bilam was, he suffered enough by being publicly humiliated that one time by his donkey.  or the donkey to remain alive and serve as a reminder to all of what occurred is beyond the degree of punishment he deserved.  Hashem metes out punishment precisely -- not one jot beyond what is deserved is given.

(According to Chazal, Bilam was actually guilty of bestiality.  According to that view, the comparison to the case of znus perhaps fits in a literal sense.)

The Be'er Yosef goes on to suggest his own answer as to why the donkey had to die.  Once the donkey was given the ability to speak, it simply could not go back to being a donkey.  A creature that can communicate with words and express ideas doesn't belong in a barn or pulling a wagon.  Better a quick death than a life like that.

Does this mean that a donkey that can speak is no longer a donkey?  It is transformed into a different being and can therefore not revert to its old self?

Perhaps the Be'er Yosef does not mean the metziyus of what the donkey was changed, but rather the point is psychological.  Even if the reality is that the donkey remains a donkey, psychologically such an animal will no longer be capable of simply following orders and carrying burdens like before.  Once a higher dimension of reality is experienced, it becomes impossible to simply sink back to the same drudgery as before.

Perhaps this is the meaning behind the famous gemara (Nida 31) that a baby is taught the entire Torah in the womb and is then made to forget it before birth.  What's the point of learning Torah only to be forced to forget it?  The answer is that even if the Torah is removed, the impression of being capable of mastering Torah, the roshem of being a ben Torah, remains.  Just like a donkey that experienced speech cannot simply go back to being an ordinary donkey, a neshoma that has tasted such lofty heights of Torah must inevitably be a different person out of the womb that a neshoma that has never tasted such delights. 

For centuries and centuries during the upcoming weeks we have mourned the destruction of the Beis haMikdash.  How and why do we keep it up?  Why can't we just forget the past and move on?  The answer is that once tasted, the memory of the Mikdash lingers.  Just as Bilam's donkey could not simply go back to being a donkey after, once we as a a nation experienced life with a Beis haMikdash we can never forget and never go back to life without one. 


  1. Anonymous4:58 AM

    >>> A creature that can communicate with words
    and express ideas doesn't belong in a barn or
    pulling a wagon. Better a quick death than a life like that.

    the living anguish for the asone would've been this-- Bilam would never sell her to a Jew; she
    would never become an ideological donkey, one who rests on Shabbos, who never plows beside an ox, who'd be helped to rise under her burden even by an 'enemy' of her (Jewish) master; one who might someday deliver a firstborn male due to be redeemed! she could've been completely fulfilled as a thinking, speaking donkey, if operated by those ideas...
    alas! Asone'ela (& the Be'er Yosef) had only to
    wait until perek 31, when she'd've been brought,
    by Diving classification & calculation, into the
    Merciful fold-of-folds...

    1. Anonymous11:42 PM

      of course the asone revealed her longing to belong to a Hebrew
      by "shalosh regalim", 22:28, a (well-documented) reference to
      those times each year when she'd knowingly, happily carry her
      new owner to Yerushalayim;

      "shalosh regalim", 22:32, tells us that Bilam had gone mu'ad,
      had been a beast with a tendency to gore;

      "shalosh regalim", 22:33, however, indicates that for one moment, Bilam was overcome by a powerful desire to convert* to
      Judaism, desire so powerful that he would overcome its three
      rejections by a Beis Din; for that single moment**, b'einei
      shamayim, Bilam was a tzadik gamor!

      *marking the one other path, hope against hope, by which pitiful Asone'ela could enter intelligent Jewish service
      (Am Yisrael, the thinking donkey's people!)

      **vs the daily moment that Bilam knew & tried to use [when Hashem might get angry]?

  2. shaul shapira3:23 PM

    "Yesh lachkor: Is a talking donkey like Bilam had still a donkey, just one with special talents, or is it a different animal entirely -- maybe we shouldn't even call it an animal at all?"

    Maybe it's taluy on whether the the whole donkey was special or just the pi hachamor.

    This post brings to mind all kinds of Yehivishe jokes. Here's one. A guy built a house based on priciples he had learnt from a gemara in Succah. The house collapsed. He realized that some of the architecture just didn't compute. He was horrified and went to ask his rebbi. The rebbi listend to his kashe on the Gemara and remarked. "Yes, that's tosafos's kashe.".
    Sometimes 'foon a kashe ken yeh shturben...'

  3. Anonymous12:26 PM

    The fact that Bilaam's donkey was created Bein Hashmoshos of the sixth day of creation - as opposed to when all the other donkeys were created - does seem to imply that it was not a "donkey" in one way or another.


  4. Good point -- I think I saw the Pardes Yosef bring up that idea as well.

  5. Maybe it died since it's tafkid was fulfilled so memeila had to die