To Err is Arrogant
The Talmud states that Bilaam was one “who knows the mind of the Most High” due to his unique ability to discern the exact moment of G-d’s anger (Berachot 7a). In addition, when the elders of Midian and Moav came to visit him, G-d asked him, “Who are these men with you?” Since G-d appeared to be soliciting information from him, Bilaam extrapolated, “There are times when not all is revealed to Him. I shall see if there is a time when I can give a curse and He will not be aware” (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:9). Due to these two factors he thought he would succeed in cursing the Jewish People at a calculated time.
However, Bilaam’s thinking was obviously flawed. How could he possibly think that G-d was not aware of everything and that Bilaam could “pull a fast one” and get away with something without G-d knowing? Was he that ignorant? No, teach Chazal. Although he was unquestionably an evil man, he was also apparently a brilliant person, and was even a prophet. Rashi explains that kings would come to him to solicit his interpretations of their letters. He also correctly prophesied that Balak would become king of Moav (Rashi, Bamidbar 22:5). In addition, we are taught that G-d caused His Divine Presence to rest on Bilaam (ibid.). Bilaam must have possessed a sophisticated level of understanding of the ways of G-d. If so, how in the world could Bilaam have made such a foolish error?
To try and understand this let us turn to the teachings of the Maharal (Netivot Olam). It is written, he says, “The sacrificial offerings of evil people are an abomination, the prayers of the righteous are pleasing” (Mishlei 21). What is the lesson here? The Maharal explains that one might mistakenly think that G-d benefits in some way from the service performed to Him. If that would be the case, then the sacrificial offering of an evildoer could also provide that benefit. However, this is not the case. G-d derives no benefit from our service to Him. The benefit is actually to the one performing the service. Therefore, states the Maharal, the service of an evil person can be classified as an abomination.
The Maharal cites Bilaam as an example of one who misunderstood the nature of sacrificial offerings to G-d. There are several examples in the Parsha. One is in the first of the prophetic encounters. Bilaam addresses G-d, “I have set up the three altars”. Why are the altars referred to by the definite article, “the”? Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, explains that Bilaam wished to equate himself with great figures from the past who also set up altars to G-d: Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. Their combined total of altars was seven, whereas Bilaam alone constructed seven (Rashi, Bamidbar 23:7). Even though Bilaam was a sinner he thought he could please G-d with his service in a way that surpassed even the service of people vastly more righteous than him. The basis for this error is that he thought that G-d in some way “needs” our service to Him.
What is the source of this mistake to think that G-d could somehow require the service to Him? “If you sin how will you impact Him? If you behave righteously what will you give to Him?” (Iyov 35:6-7). Nothing a human being can do has a power to affect G-d. Certainly He does not need our sacrificial offerings, or anything else. This seems quite obvious. Yet this appears to have been Bilaam’s mistake with his offerings, and it seems to parallel the other mistake cited earlier from Rashi, that Bilaam thought there was a limitation of G-d’s knowledge.
The Torah leaves no room for doubt about the fact that G-d created the universe. It would be irrational to think that He is in any way dependent upon the universe that He created from nothing. He was perfect before He created the universe, and certainly does not require anything from the universe He created.
Perhaps the basis for Bilaam’s error is in an arrogant approach to the nature of G-d’s interaction with the creation. G-d created the laws that govern our universe, both spiritual and physical laws. “Olam k’minhago noheg” — the world functions according to its established laws (Avoda Zara 54b).
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto explains that there are two main dimensions in G-d’s interaction with creation. One is that of “response” to our choices with reward and punishment. When humanity fulfills G-d’s will, He responds by bestowing blessing and goodness upon the world. When humanity rebels, however, G-d brings punishment to the world, which may seem contrary to His ultimate will to give goodness to the creation — the very purpose for which it was created.
Rabbi Luzatto teaches further that there is another dimension to G-d’s interaction with creation that might seem to contradict the first dimension. This second dimension of interaction is totally independent of humanity’s merits. As our Sages teach, “I will show favor to whom I shall show favor - even though he may be undeserving” (Berachot 7a). The Ramchal calls this the “Absolute Rulership” dimension. This dimension prevents humans from destroying the world and makes the ultimate perfection of humanity inevitable, regardless of merit.
The first dimension, however — “Reward and Punishment” — seems to teach us the opposite. We are treated according to our deeds and in reaction to our merits. In a certain sense it seems that G-d has “subjugated” His reaction to fit our behavior
Understanding the co-existence of these two dimensions is where Bilaam erred.
Bilaam refused to accept that the dimension of “Absolute Rulership” always transcends that of “Reward and Punishment”. There is nothing that occurs in our world that does not have some role to play in the larger context of the fulfillment of the world’s destiny. Many sources demonstrate this. One example is, “I am G-d, I have never deviated” (Malachi 3:6). The meaning is that G-d never deviates from His ultimate goal (Da’at Tevunos p. 41). This is the meaning of the statement made in the Talmud, “Everything G-d does is for the good” (Berachot 60b).
In one of his prophecies, Bilaam says, “G-d does not look at the foolishness of Yaakov, and He does not see sins in Yisrael.” Rashi explains this to mean that G-d does not look at the foolishness that is in Yaakov when they transgress His words. He does not scrutinize their foolishness when they transgress His law. Even when they cause anger and rebel before Him, He does not depart from their midst (Bamidbar 23, 21). This prophecy, along with the others that Bilaam received, is a direct refutation of Bilaam’s mistake. Through G-d’s unconditional commitment to the Jewish People we see the dimension of His absolute rulership. G-d’s relationship with the Jewish nation is unconditional, because the Jewish People are the instrument through whom humanity will ultimately be perfected. To destroy them, even when they sin, would subvert this goal. Bilaam learns from this that he cannot destroy the Jewish People with his curses. He learns that G-d is always aware. This is a lesson that we too may learn from Bilaam’s mistake.