In one of the most fascinating stories in the Torah, the prophet Balaam tries get G‑d to acquiesce to his desire to curse the Jewish people, thereby causing them some harm that would weaken or destroy them. Balak, the king of Moab, had offered him great reward if he would weaken the people of Israel so they could be driven away from the region.

Balaam engages in a series of dialogues with G‑d, in which G‑d makes it clear that He doesn’t want Israel cursed. Balaam, however, thinks he can still “sell” G‑d on the idea.

Then, Balaam’s donkey moves from being a mere conveyance to an eloquent spokescreature for animal rights. Three times she sees an angel blocking the way. Each time she moves aside—angering Balaam, who did not see the angel. Each time, Balaam hits the poor donkey. Finally, in the Torah’s words,Balaam’s donkey becomes an eloquent spokescreature for animal rights

G‑d opened the mouth of the she-donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?”

Balaam said to the she-donkey, “For you have humiliated me; if I had a sword in my hand, I would kill you right now.”

The she-donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your she-donkey on which you have ridden since you first started until now? Have I been accustomed to do this to you?”

He said, “No.”

G‑d opened Balaam's eyes, and he saw the angel of G‑d standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.

The angel of G‑d said to him, “Why have you beaten your she-donkey these three times? Behold, I have came out to thwart you . . .”

The biblical commentator Rashi points out the donkey seeing the angel is not at all remarkable: “The she-donkey saw, but [Balaam] did not see, for G‑d permitted a beast to perceive more than a man. Since [man] possesses intelligence, he would become insane if he saw the threatening angel.”

This idea expressed by Rashi is an embodiment of the key lesson of the entire Balaam episode.

The question is often asked: why did G‑d originally argue with Balaam, telling him that He disapproved of the trip, only to let him go and try to curse Israel, and eventually foiling his plot? Why didn’t He just stop Balaam in his tracks?

The Talmud (Makkot 10b) answers this question:

One is allowed to follow the road he wishes to pursue, as it is written, “G‑d said to Balaam, ‘You shall not go with them,’” and then it is written, “If the men came to call you, rise up and go with them.”

The essence of humanity is free will. Free will is the “image of G‑d” in which Adam and Eve were created.We can, and alas often do, use the beautiful mural of our lives merely to wrap old fish heads

The Source of All has defined absolute moral and conceptual principles. Living a life that expresses these principles is the definition of goodness. At every juncture, however, we are completely free to reject such a mode of life. This freedom gives substance and meaning to our choice when we “choose life.”

On rare occasions we are given a glimpse of the truth (such as at Sinai), just so that we know what it is that we seek. But freedom of choice can truly exist only in an environment of natural ignorance that demands discernment and intelligence to overcome. We must live in a world where neither Creator nor creation is obvious. We are then given the ability to use our powers of intelligent analysis and discernment to recognize that this magnificent mural has an Artist, and that our being painted into this mural means that our presence is of fundamental necessity for the entire enterprise of creation to be whole.

We can, of course, deny the beauty and purpose of the painting, and remain in the state of ignorance we are born into. We can, and alas often do, use the beautiful mural of our lives merely to wrap old fish heads before throwing them into the trash. We can use our incredible powers of discernment and intelligence to attain the superficial and ephemeral, all the while making each other miserable in 101 ingenious ways. Balaam can listen to G‑d or not; he can be grateful for his donkey, or repay the benefits he has received with evil—by beating her.

As we all remember, the pauper in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper was using the desperately sought Seal of the Realm to crack nuts, oblivious to its true value as the nation’s symbol of authority and law.

If we saw the process of creation and the presence of the G‑dly in everything, if we saw the flow of energy from the Infinite Source into everything, bringing it into being at every moment, we would have no free choice in choosing the good; it would be obvious.

Malach, the Hebrew word for “angel,” simply means “messenger.” An angel is a vehicle that carries life force to a particular entity and situation, like a specific “packet” of information on the Internet carrying information from the server to a specific IP address. In a metaphorical sense, the angel blocking Balaam’s path was G‑d giving Balaam the information to intuit that this particular road trip was a bad idea. The donkey sees this reality and accepts it as matter of course; were we to see it, it would circumvent our intellect and choice, and force us to accept the reality of the G‑dly presence.

Hence, an animal possessed of no free will or abstract intelligence can see all. Balaam’s donkey was not overwhelmed by the vision of the spiritual forces that drive everything, because it is unaffected by the cognitive implications of this fact. That is a fine way of life—for a donkeyShe does not need the tools of intelligence that provide us humans with a grasp of the implications of that which we see.

We are given discernment and intelligence to autonomously pierce the veil of ignorance cast over humanity, if we so choose. To do so, this veil must remain locked in place until we open it by using the keys we are given.

Often people say, “If G‑d would appear to me, and tell me to, I would live a life according to the Torah.” That is a fine way of life—for a donkey. Besides, as events demonstrated, even after Balaam got to see things from the donkey’s perspective, it did not help him; he kept following the “way he wished to be led.”

G‑d has given us something far, far superior to “Donkeyvision”: the challenge of liberty and the gift of discernment.