These days, the talking donkey most familiar to Americans is the character from the movie Shrek (2001). Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then appeared in seven films in the 1950s. But the original is a lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.
All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them; donkeys are jackasses, after all, and granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy.
The rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things history would someday require but were put aside until needed. One such was Balaam’s donkey. Another was — the first set of tongs!
A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and to make the tongs, you need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all other tongs.
Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it, celebrated its heat and light, thanked God, and used it ever after.
To such benchmarks in human progress we add the discovery of writing, the means of transmitting knowledge, which rabbinic tradition ascribes to Enoch. Legend has God allowing Enoch to live among the angels so he might attain their mastery of the natural universe and write it down for humans to learn.
All these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus has to steal these secrets (metallurgy, fire, and script) and give them to mortals, an act for which he is punished by having an eagle rip apart his flesh. The God of the rabbis, by contrast, creates everything we need — writing, fire, tongs, and even a talking donkey — and then glories in our discovering them.
Civilization requires breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown.
God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the rabbis say, is what God wants: We are in league with God in manufacturing progress.
But progress is measured in eons, so we must commit ourselves to life for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster, and war.
We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet another donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows?