G-d said to Bil’am, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for it is blessed.”
Chazal, cited by Rashi, parse this pasuk and uncover a dialogue that spans several proposals and responses. Bil’am starts off by relating Balak’s offer to secure his services. Hashem’s response is unequivocal: No way! Don’t go! Not to be undone so easily, Bil’am tries a fall-back position: OK. I won’t go. I’ll curse them instead without moving an inch. HKBH shoots down that idea as well. Bil’am tries a third time: So maybe I will give them a beracha instead! Hashem replies: Thanks, but no thanks. They don’t need any blessing from outsiders. They are all inherently blessed!
What could Bil’am have meant with his last, seemingly generous, offer? Why was his proposal shot down?
To answer, we need first move out of the Jewish context into a broader one, specifically looking at how different peoples relate to G-d. Klal Yisrael connects with two roles that are unique to G-d: His creation of the world ex nihilo / yesh me-ayin; His ability to utterly destroy.
By the latter we mean that He can completely annihilate, rather than just change forms. We mean the converse of creating something from nothing, i.e. turning something back into nothing. Humans have no experience with this. When they destroy – or witness destruction – they do not see real negation. A nuclear device may obliterate a city, but the city does no disappear. Rather, whatever used to exist simply changes into rubble, dust, or different elements. The changes we see – especially the destructive ones – are violent, often cataclysmic. Hashem, however, can simply remove what is there.
This may seem like a subtle point, but it changes the way people look at Hashem, and how He works in history. The rest of the world does not relate to, and does not expect, either creation or destruction that turns nothing into something, or the reverse. They focus on the way the world has operated since the time of Creation, which involves changing forms of existing matter (and existing institutions!). Those who try to serve G-d marvel at His ability to work within the world with impunity, doing what He wants, with no limitations. He builds up, and He tears down. They wait expectantly for the Great Day to come, in which His anger will manifest itself against the existing order, and He will usher in a redeemed existence after a violent encounter with evil. They believe that they will be richly rewarded for their loyalty to Him before the arrival of that day.
The bottom line is that their focus is on an apocalyptic reordering of the existing system, brought about through a manifestation of Hashem’ anger, as it were. This focus comes at the expense of noting, understanding, savoring Hashem as a Creator ex nihilo. They lose sight of this capacity of Hashem, and look only to a remix of elements, incorporating a tearing down of the old system.
Bil’am completely identified with this thinking. Chazal tell us that while he understood that Klal Yisrael was beloved of Hashem, he also knew of a moment each day in which His midas ha-din was expressed. Bil’am believed that if he cursed the Jews at that precise moment, his words could be effective.
Bil’am’s power was tied to destruction, because the highest good that he focused on within Hashem was also destructive! He related to the aspects of Hashem that mightily tore asunder the old, and recombined the pieces. For this reason, Bil’am’s blessings were short-lived. His power was connected to cursing and destroying; even his berachos could not escape them. His berachos contained within themselves connection to Hashem’s destructive force. His berachos were therefore unwelcome, and spurned by HKBH.
He could not really relate to the idea that a Klal Yisrael was placed beyond the reach of his curses, because they were tied to a different aspect of Hashem: His ability to create from nothing. Their role, their place, was sui generis – unique. Whatever faults and deficiencies they sometimes displayed, their greatness came from a place of complete newness and creativity – a place that could easily disown the past, and shake off prior iniquity. Klal Yisrael at its core relates only to their future (guaranteed) greatness. Hashem can simply make the mistakes of the past disappear, leaving behind only the core neshamah of kedushah.