And Hashem opened the mouth of the donkey. She said to Bilaam: What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times? (Sefer BeMidbar 22:28)
1. The donkey who spoke
Some readers will recall the 1960s television show “Mr. Ed”. The show centered upon the adventures of Mr. Ed – a talking horse – and his owner Wilbur Post. Mr. Ed’s remarkable gift was known only to Wilbur. Mr. Ed spoke to no one else. The creators of the television series were confronted with the question of how Mr. Ed’s special gift should be explained to viewers. They decided to leave this issue to the viewer’s imagination. When Wilbur confronted Mr. Ed, he responded that Wibur would not be able to understand the phenomenon; “it’s bigger than the both of us.”
Our Sages were confronted with a similar dilemma presented by Parshat Balak. The parasha relates the story of Bilaam and Balak. Balak, the king of Moav, hires Bilaam to curse Bnai Yisrael. Bilaam receives a prophecy from Hashem instructing him to refuse Balak’s request. However, both Balak and Bilaam are persistent. Hashem allows Bilaam to travel to Balak but warns him to not act against Bnai Yisrael.
On his journey to Balak, Bilaam receives a further warning from Hashem to act only as directed by Him. This warning is initiated by Bilaam’s donkey suddenly speaking to his master. Our Sages were troubled by the proposition that a donkey should engage in speech.
Our Sages were not concerned with the narrative because it posits an extraordinary miracle. Our Sages readily accepted the reality of the miracles described in the Torah. Their concern actually was not related to this specific miracle. Instead, they felt that the miracles – all and any miracles – pose a troublesome problem begging an explanation.
That which was is that which shall be. That which was done is what shall be done. There is nothing new under the sun. (Megilat Kohelet 1:9)
2. The problem with miracles
The nature of this problem is beyond this discussion and will only be very superficially summarized. According to Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, the above passage describes the unchanging character of the universe. The Sages of the Talmud assume that when the sixth day of creation came to its close the process of creation was complete. From that point forward the created universe operates according to the nature with which it was endowed and the physical laws established to govern it. The reason that the Sages assumed that nature and the laws established at creation are immutable is tied to complex philosophical issues that cannot be discussed here. However, it is not necessary to further explore their reasons for this conclusion to appreciate their dilemma. If the physical universe is immutable, then how can a miracle occur? How can the material world apparently shed the bonds imposed by its very nature and disobey the laws imposed upon it?
And Moshe stretched his hand over the sea. Toward morning, the water returned to its might. The Egyptians fled toward it and Hashem stirred the Egyptians within the sea. (Sefer Shemot 14:2)
3. Conditions imposed upon creation
The Sages provide two responses. The first is associated with the above passage. The passage describes the final act of the splitting of the Reed Sea. Moshe stretches his hand over the water of the sea. The solid walls of water that formed a path for Bnai Yisrael’s passage, collapse. The waters of the sea crash down upon the Egyptians and drown them.
Commenting on this passage the Sages explain that most miracles where pre-set at the time of creation. In the words of the Sages, when Hashem created the seas, He directed the waters of the sea to part in the future for His chosen people. Miracles are merely the execution of an ancient directive issued at the time of creation.
Not all miracles were pre-set in this manner. The second response of the Sages describes a small number of miracles that are exceptional. They identify ten miraculous objects that were created at dusk of the final day of creation. Among these ten objects are Bilaam’s talking donkey, the manna, and the tablets of the Decalogue.
Why did the Sages assign the creation of these ten objects this special status of being created at dusk of the final day of creation? It is very difficult to precisely answer this question. Perhaps, these ten objects or phenomena are regarded as unique aberrations of enormous magnitude and cannot be regarded as the consequence of directives given to objects of nature at the time of creation.
The main point of this discussion is that according to the Sages, all miracles are expressions of a plan put into place at creation. Each miracle unfolds at its proper time in history.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that this issue is unrelated to the question of how frequently miracles occur. Commentators who assume that miracles are frequent merely posit that the omniscient Creator planed and scheduled each of these “everyday miracles” in antiquity. Each unfolds at its proper moment.
And Moshe stretched his hand over the sea. And Hashem moved the sea with a strong eastern wind that entire night. He made the sea a dry place. And the waters parted. (Sefer Shemot 14:21)
4. Miracles as unusual expressions of nature
There does seem to an interesting dispute between the commentators on the exact meaning of this interpretation of miracles. Most authorities assume that the Sages are positing that miracles are actually only apparent aberrations from the natural order. Really, miracles are uncommon but quite natural events. The sea parted before Bnai Yisrael because of the coincidence of a number of natural causes at that precise moment. These are alluded to in the above passage. The passage describes a wind of enormous power that parts the waters. Every miracle should be understood in the same fashion. A miracle is remarkable only in its timing and uncommon nature. However, it is an expression of the laws of nature and not a violation of them.
5. Miracles as an expression of a higher order
Rabbaynu David Kimchi – RaDaK – seems to prefer an alternative explanation of the Sages’ perspective. He begins by acknowledging the immutable nature of the created universe. However, he posits that nature and its laws are subjugated to an overarching higher order. This higher order is the grand design or function of the universe. The universe is fashioned with and designed to conform to spiritual ends and objectives. The most fundamental objective is the advancement of humanity toward recognition of Hashem. Nature and the laws that govern physical phenomena are tools utilized by a set of principles of a higher order that embody this grand design.
An illustration will help demonstrate RaDak’s point. I own a computer that I use for many purposes. I did not buy it as an investment or intending to barter it. I bought it to use for work and for personal projects. However, when this computer becomes obsolete, I will sell it and use the funds to help pay for my next computer.
When I sell my computer, have I altered my life mission or my personal goals in life? Of course not. I have merely found a new and more appropriate manner to employ the computer. My life mission, my goals and objectives in life are unchanged and remain my true guiding principles. However, the role of this tool – my computer – within my overall plan – has changed. When I bought the computer, it served my needs and furthered my mission by functioning as a computer. At the point at which I sell it, I have decided that it better serves me as an object of value that can be transformed into cash.
RaDak understands the laws that govern the material world much as I see my computer. Nature and its laws exist within a hierarchy. In this hierarchy they are the servant to a set of principles of a higher order – Hashem’s plan for humanity. It is this plan and its principles that are immutable not the laws of the physical world. Most of the time, the laws of nature are a faithful servant to this grand scheme of the universe. Sometimes, the physical laws must yield to the demands of the greater plan. To the observer, it appears that the immutable character of the universe has been compromised. On the contrary, it is this immutable nature that demands that the physical laws yield to its imperatives.
The heavens extol the glory of G-d and the sky tells of the work of His hands. (Sefer Tehilim 19:2)
6. A religious scientist?
It is often assumed that scientific and religious outlooks are in conflict. The premise underlying this assumption is that religion seeks its validation through providing an explanation for the inexplicable elements of the universe. The greater the mystery of the universe the more evidence it provides of a Creator and Master. The more we understand the universe the less room there is for religion. From this perspective, the scientist is a rational, objective thinker and the religionist is mystical and subjective in his view of the universe.
This perception of conflict is completely contrary to the Torah’s outlook. As evident from the discussion above, our Sages assumed that the universe is generally governed by laws. It is the miracles that require explanation!
The attitude of our Sages is beautifully expressed by King David in the above passage. The heavens extol Hashem’s glory! David did not see the physical world as a set of random events governed by caprice and chance. He observed patterns and regularity in the changing of the seasons, the movements of the heavens, and the ebb and flow of organic life. We do not know how he understood the laws governing these phenomena but he declares his awe with the overwhelming wisdom exhibited by the workings of the universe.
Like David, our Sages understood that Hashem’s wisdom is infinite. They expected the universe that He created to reflect this immense wisdom. From the perspective of our Sages, the more we understand the universe the greater is our appreciation of this wisdom and the more intense our awe.
 There is a dispute among the commentators over whether Bilaam’s donkey actually spoke to him. Maimonides and others acknowledge that many sages understand the narrative in its literal sense. The donkey did speak. However, Maimonides and these other authorities contend that Bilaam’s donkey spoke to him in a prophetic vision but not in physical reality.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Megilat Kohelet, 1:9.  Midrash Rabba, Sefer Beresheit 5:5.  Mesechet Avot 5:6.  A difficulty with this explanation is that among the ten noted miracles is the rainbow. Nachmanides asserts that the rainbow is a natural phenomenon and existed from the time of creation. After the Deluge, Hashem assigned to the rainbow a new significance. It communicates His promise to preserve humanity. However, Malbim and others describe the Deluge as a refashioning of the earth and the rainbow as a post-Deluge phenomenon. According to this perspective, the Sages’ treatment of the rainbow as a miracle of extraordinary proportions seems to refer to the refashioning of the earth from which the rainbow emerged.  The reference to antiquity treats the scheduling of miracles from a human perspective. Hashem does not exist in time. He is not subject to past, present and future.  Rabbaynu Bachya, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 14:27.  Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 2:1.  Maimonides, in his commentary on Avot, discusses the position of the Sages and adopts the explanation of Rabbaynu Bachya. However, in Moreh Nevuchim he reviews the position of the Sages and without explanation demurs. It is possible that Maimonides believes that Rabbaynu Bachya has properly interpreted the intention of the Sages but himself prefers the position of RaDak.