Hashem opens the donkey’s mouth to rebuke Bilaam for hitting him without justification. Bilaam then sees the Angel and the Angel tells him that if the donkey had not stopped walking, then the Angel would have killed Bilaam and let the donkey live.
Our Sages learn from here that the Angel killed the donkey because it rebuked Bilaam and humiliated him because he had no good response to the rebuke. Because the donkey was the cause of the humiliation of a human being, the donkey was killed so that people would not say that this was the donkey to whom Bilaam had no response. Our Sages compare this to the law that if a person is involved in bestiality, then the animal is killed because something bad came about because of the animal.
Rav Avraham Grodzensky zt”l, the Mashgiach of Slobodka, analyses this teaching of Our Sages. He first notes that this donkey was a one of a kind in its uniqueness in that it represented an extremely rare miracle and that it was living proof of hashgacha (Divine Providence). When people would see such a donkey it would surely be a big Kiddush HaShem, showing people of the lengths to which HaShem would go to protect the Jewish people, and demonstrating a clear upheaval of the laws of nature. Despite all this, the donkey had to be killed to protect the honor of a human being.
He then continues by focusing on the human being at hand: Bilaam Harasha, the evil Bilaam, a man full of bad character traits, and who was on his way to curse the Jewish people. It is hard to think of a more lowly human being than this, and yet, to protect his honor, the donkey had to be killed. This teaches the almost unfathomable degree to which honor is due to human beings, because they are made in the Image of G-d – as it states in Pirkei Avot, “Man is beloved, because he created in the Image.”
Rav Yissachar Frand, discussing this very point, observes that the secular approach is very different. He notes that in ethics classes in the secular world, they pose the following question: If a person has the choice of rescuing from a fire or from drowning or from some emergency scenario, only one individual — the family’s trustworthy dog who has been in the family for 15 years and saved countless people’s lives or a homeless person who is drunk one day and strung out on drugs the next day — who should the person save, the dog or the drunk?
In most classes, everyone says that we should save our dog rather than the homeless person. Rav Frand, citing the story of Bilaam’s donkey, shows that this is not the Torah’s way of viewing things. Not only should we save the human being in such a scenario, but in certain situations we should even kill the animal to save the dignity of a human being — even a wicked human being!
One may wonder that the prohibition of Tzaar Baalei Chaim – causing pain to animals – shows that the Torah is very careful with regard to causing pain even to animals, so why is it permitted to kill an animal, simply in order to preserve the honor of a human being?
The commentaries explain that this only applies when a person does not gain a benefit in a tangible way from the pain caused. This is why it is permitted to slaughter animals for eating even though it causes them some pain. The extent of this principle is demonstrated by a fascinating Gemara.
The Gemara discusses the Mitzvot of perikah and teinah – loading and unloading a donkey of its burden. The Gemara notes that one fulfills the Mitzva of helping one’s fellow for both teinah and perikah. However, there is another Mitzva fulfilled with perika – that of preventing Tsaar baalei chaim, because by unloading the donkey of its load, the person is easing the donkey’s discomfort.
Accordingly, if one has the option to do the Mitzva of teinah or perikah, he should do perikah because of the additional aspect of Tsaar baalei chaim.
However, the Braissa then discusses a case of when a person is faced with two donkeys – one is owned by his enemy and requires teinah, and the other is owned by his friend but requires perikah. Based on the idea that perikah overrides teinah, it would have seemed that the halacha would be to do perikah. However, the Braissa rules that one should do teinah on his enemy’s donkey. The Gemara explains that this is because it is preferable to overcome one’s evil inclination of hatred for a person and help him even though he does not want to do so.
The commentaries note that this answer seems very difficult to understand given the importance of Tsaar baalei chaim. The Minchas Chinuch explains, based on the idea that Tsaar baalei chaim is pushed off when there is benefit for a human being, all the more so, this is the case when the benefit is of a spiritual nature.
This teaches us the Torah perspective about our attitude to animals. Of course, one must act with compassion to all of HaShem’s creatures, but one must also keep in mind that the purpose of all of creation is for humanity.
Moreover, it reminds us that, no matter how intelligent animals can be, they are on a qualitatively lower spiritual level than human beings, and the honor of a human, even one as lowly as Bilaam, overrides the life of the most elevated animal.