A fellow brings his dog with him to his rabbi, insisting that this dog was the greatest cantor in the world. The rabbi, of course, dismissed him out of hand, insisting that the man – along with his dog – are either charlatans of simply wasting his time. But the fellow was insistent and just to be rid of him the rabbi agreed to give the dog an audition. The owner bid the rabbi to ask the dog to sing any musical piece in the style of any of the famous hazzanim. Sop the rabbi directed the dog to sing Kol Nidre like Yossele Rosenblatt. Clearing his throat, the dog then gave a moving rendition of that piece. The rabbi was flabbergasted. The owner encouraged the rabbi to test the dog further. So the rabbi directed the dog to sing a famous Moshe Koussevitzky piece, which the dog sang brilliantly and effortlessly. It was a miracle! The rabbi effused that this dog will transform synagogue life and by touring around the world as a guest hazzan he will bring a multitude of Jews back to Judaism. But the owner was silent and somewhat dejected. “You talk to him,” the owner said pointing to the dog. “He says he wants to be a doctor!”
Talking animals – no less than singing ones – are indeed at variance with nature and thus naturally identified as miracles. Yet when considering the case of Bil’am’s talking mule, the rabbis emphasize an entirely different aspect of the story. Bil’am, a well-known sorcerer, was hired by Balak, King of Mo’ab to curse the people Israel (Numbers 22). On his journey, God attempts to dissuade him from continuing by placing before his mule the image of a threatening adversary that only the mule could see. Three times the image blocked the path of the mule. Three times the mule strayed from the path. And three times Bil’am struck the mule to direct back onto the road.
At this point the mule plaintively asks why his master has struck him so ferociously when he has always been a reliable means of transportation. It is here that one might expect some discussion about the nature of miracles or the power of God or the veracity of the Torah. But the rabbis do none of that. (A thousand years later Maimonides, ever the rationalist, explains that the entire episode was a dream!) For the rabbis, the lesson that emerges from this story is that causing unnecessary pain to animals is a terrible wrong. Bil’am was punished for striking his animal that justly called out in objection.
The rabbis were far less interested in grand theological statements and far more interested in practical ethics. What makes for good living is not a deeper or sophisticated understanding of miracles but how we best treat God’s creatures.