In its grandest forms, speech is the Divine gift which enabled Moshe to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” and the gift which enables us, to this day, to protest injustice and decry evil. It is the Divine gift through which we are able to express love, shared hopes and communicate our vision to others.
But both the story of Bilaam and Targum Jonathan instruct us to see beyond the grand, deep, transformative moments of speech and realize that each and every time we speak, we are taking advantage of a Divine gift. In an elevator, on the checkout line, when asking our child to do her homework, when responding to a person looking for a handout, we are deploying this Divine gift that is within us. And as such, every time we open our mouths we are either affirming God’s decision to entrust us with this power, or we are proving ourselves — for that moment — unworthy and unappreciative of it.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach taught that a person should pray before each time they open their mouths. In light of the awful damage we can cause with speech, or the great blessing we can bestow with it, this is surely not a bad idea. But a more practical suggestion perhaps would be to just meditate for a split-second on the image of Bilaam’s donkey, or on Targum Jonathan, “and with [God’s] breath the human became a creature of speech.”