Bilam is Powerless
The point of parshas Balak is that nothing happens without Hashem. There is nothing good that happens to you, no harm that befalls you, without Hashem behind it. When you are grateful, the first one to thank is Hashem. When someone hurts you, this also comes from Hashem — He allows the harm to befall you due to your wrongdoing.
Hashem told Bilam clearly that he would not be able to curse Yisrael. Indeed, Bilam did not have the ability to utter the curse. This is the rule — if Hashem does not allow harm, harm will not come. (Toras Habitachon Parshas Balak)
Who is Reliable?
The Chovos Halevavos explains that if someone relies on several people, he does not truly rely on any of them. He knows that without this one, he will still go to the others. Even if one is more important than the others, he puts more trust in that one, but nonetheless relies on the others as well. Consequently, his trust is not so great. If there is only one person who can help him or hurt him, he will put all his trust in that one alone — because there is no one else to look to for help.
Similarly, when a person realizes that no one can help him or hurt him without Hashem’s permission, he will turn his heart away from others and trust in Hashem alone. (Toras Habitachon; see Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon, Chapter Three, Third Introduction)
This is the story of Dovid Hamelech and Shimi Ben Geira. Dovid was terribly mistreated by Shimi, but refused to punish him at the time, saying that Hashem had sent Shimi. (Shmuel 2:16:11)
The Toras Habitachon cites Rav Yaakov Emden (1) that Shimi didn’t have choice of action. Actually, Rav Emden doesn’t say this exactly, just that Dovid saw Shimi as fulfilling the will of Hashem. What the Toras Habitachon means is that it was as if Hashem had taken away Shimi’s power of choice.
We find this concept many times — that Hashem arranges circumstances to achieve His ends, and it appears that the parties involved had no choice whatsoever.
See the commentary of the Malbim (parshas Vayeisheiv) regarding the confrontation between Yoseif and his brothers: In this case, every detail was orchestrated by Hashem. (Nonetheless, it cannot be that they had no choice in the matter. The Chofetz Chaim shows how they were all punished, measure for measure.)
Rashi, quoting Sanhedrin 82, says this idea: Moshe was surely capable of doing what Pinchus did. Yet, Hashem saw to it that Moshe would not act, in order to bring merit to Pinchus. (B’midbar 25:6)
The Gemara in Horiyos (10b) states: In the merit of learning Torah and doing mitzvos not for the sake of heaven, one will come to do them lishma (for the proper intent). Because of the korbanos which Balak brought, he was zoche to be the ancestor of Rus Hamo’avia (2). Rav Dovid Soloveichik asked: How is it possible to derive that one person’s act will come to lishma from this story? There were different people involved here, not just one…
In other words, granted that Balak got some kind of reward, how can we derive from here that if a person acts without proper intent, he himself will come to proper intent?
Rather, it means that there is an aspect of mitzva — even without the lishma. Balak was doing a mitzva — and received Hashem’s attention — by fulfilling His will (in bringing korbanos). The act of the mitzva, even without the requisite intent — is meritorious (3). (See Meorei Hamoadim, Shavuos)
Bilam and His Goals
How do we understand the story of Bilam? He was told many times that Hashem’s will cannot be thwarted, yet he inserted his evil designs whenever possible. Is he “detached from reality,” or willfully manipulating the facts to achieve his own ends?
Rashi tells us repeatedly that Bilam understood very well what would happen with Klal Yisrael and himself. He knew the reality, but refused to abide by it. Contrast this with Dovid Hamelech’s attitude, cited above: Dovid refused to blame the other side, but instead sought to atone for his own shortcomings.
The lesson of Balak and Bilam is that one cannot thwart the will of Hashem.
The role of the navi is to bring about the fulfillment of the prophecies. (Ramban) Bilam is the reverse! He strives to negate his own prophecies!
1. Migdal Oz, Aliyas Hadan L’chaf Zechus. Even if a person cannot find any way to give an evildoer the benefit of the doubt, he should still say that the assailant was carrying out the will of Hashem.
2. Shlomo Hamelech, descended from Rus, brought many korbanos with the proper intent. (Sota 47a)
3. The commentaries to the Gemara explain that Balak’s intent was not totally corrupt. His main incentive was fear, as the Torah states (B’midbar 22:3).