The episode of the talking donkey in this week’s portion reads more like an excerpt from a fairy tale than a passage from the bible. Yet it draws our attention to a fundamental teaching of Jewish philosophy.

When the donkey speaks to Bilaam she says:

“What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times? (Bamidbar 22:28)

Bilaam replies:

Because you mocked me. If I would have a sword in my hand I would kill you!” (ibid. 29)

The Midrash portrays the response the donkey must have given to Bilaam:

You have just admitted that you need a sword to kill me. How do you propose to wipe out an entire nation through the power of your curse?!

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (mid twentieth century) comments that this riposte, though uttered by a donkey, deserves a serious answer. He explains that human beings are not magicians. We do not have special powers to bless or curse people. If a person is deserving, he or she will receive a blessing from G-d. If they are wicked, they will be punished. Mere words uttered by another human being cannot alter this basic equation.

The true purpose of a blessing is to somehow inculcate higher spiritual values within the person seeking the blessing, in order to make them deserving of being blessed by G-d. Similarly, with a curse, the purpose is to make sin cling to the victim so that he will deserve to be punished because of his spiritual fall.

With this in mind we can see that Bilaam’s intention with his curse was to influence the Israelites to lapse into sin and thus bring about the curse upon themselves, as indeed happens at the end of the sidra when the people sinned with the daughters of Moab.

This mechanism cannot apply to a donkey. It is meaningless to talk about asinine sin or virtue. For this reason, Bilaam exclaims that without a sword he is powerless before his beast.