After seeing how easily the Bnei Yisrael defeated the powerful armies of Sichon and Og, Balak, the king of Moav, hired Bilaam, the magician and prophet, to use his powers to curse the nation. In this way, Balak hoped to weaken the Jewish people before their inevitable conflict. The pesukim detail how he sent messengers to recruit Bilaam who initially refused to come since Hashem had not allowed him. Balak doubles down by promising Bilaam even more wealth and honors if he’ll come. Bilaam, filled with a desire to go, waits to see if Hashem will change His mind. Hashem gives him a puzzling response.
“וַיָּבֹ֨א אֱלֹהִ֥ים | אֶל־בִּלְעָם֘ לַ֒יְלָה֒ וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֗וֹ אִם־לִקְרֹ֤א לְךָ֙ בָּ֣אוּ הָֽאֲנָשִׁ֔ים ק֖וּם לֵ֣ךְ אִתָּ֑ם וְאַ֗ךְ אֶת־הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־אֲדַבֵּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ אֹת֥וֹ תַֽעֲשֶֽׂה” “And Hashem came to Bilaam at night and said to him, ‘If these men have come to call for you, arise and go with them, but the word I speak to you- that you should do” (Bamidbar 22:20). The Ohr HaChaim points out several perplexing items in this pasuk. First, why is Hashem seemingly in doubt as to the purpose of these visitors? Of course He knows why they’re there! Secondly, why would Hashem ever allow Bilaam to go and even attempt to curse the Jewish People? Lastly, why did Hashem change His mind from earlier when He told Bilaam not to go? What changed in the meantime?
He explains that Hashem wanted to make sure there would be no doubts as to the fact that Bilaam would, and why he would, fail. If He would have let Bilaam go right away, people would have thought that Bilaam had control over his actions, that the reason he failed was because he decided not to curse the Jews; as opposed to the reality that Hashem didn’t let him. If He wouldn’t have let Bilaam go at all, people would have thought that Hashem couldn’t control Bilaam and wanted to make sure he didn’t get a chance to curse the Jews. Therefore, He solved both these issues by at first refusing, and then consenting to Bilaam’s going.
The Ohr HaChaim gives a second, fascinating answer. Hashem gives all of His creations the opportunity to collect their reward; it’s up to the creations to take it. We are told later on (31:8) that Bilaam was killed in the battle with Midian. Chazal teach us that the reason Bilaam was there at all was to collect his reward for his services. (While Bilaam failed to curse the Jews, he did entice them to sin with the daughters of Midian; see Perek 25.) This entire episode would eventually lead to his death. Therefore, Hashem tells him not to go! He gives Bilaam the opportunity to save his own life; but Bilaam doesn’t see this, he’s too blinded by his hatred for Bnei Yisrael. And while Hashem wants only what is best for each and every human being, He also allows man to go in the path he chooses for himself, even if it leads to sin. (See Makkos 10b which explains how this famous principle is derived from this story.)
So when Bilaam returns to ask Hashem a second time, Hashem allows him to go. Not because He changed His mind, but because He’s fulfilled His obligation to do good, and will now allow the free-will of man to take hold. When Hashem seems confused as to why these men are visiting Bilaam, He is actually asking Bilaam if he is interested in what these men are offering. He’s telling Bilaam, ‘Don’t you understand? This evil act will eventually lead to your downfall!” But once He sees that’s what Bilaam wants, He lets him go, thereby allowing that most amazing of opportunities, the free-will of human beings.
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