The story of Bilam, the gentile prophet, is most peculiar. It begins when Balak, the king of Moav, recognizes that he is in danger. The Jewish nation had just destroyed Sichon, and Moav was next. Out of desperation, Balak sent messengers to Bilam saying, “Please, curse this nation so that we can remain in our land.”
Bilam was more than willing to curse the Jews – he hated them more than Balak did, explains Rashi. Balak only asked for help defending himself against the Jews. Bilam wanted them dead. Therefore, Bilam asked Hashem for permission to destroy them.
Hashem said to Bilam, “You may go, but do not say anything I don’t tell you to say.” Bilam then set off with his donkey on a journey to curse the Jews. Along the way, a malach stopped the donkey. Bilam beat the animal. The donkey continued. Again a malach stopped it, and again Bilam beat it. Finally, the donkey opened its mouth and spoke. An overt miracle.
The Sforno explains that Hashem brought about this miracle so that Bilam would realize his mistake and do teshuvah. Even though Hashem doesn’t normally create obvious miracles, He nevertheless did here because He didn’t want a man as important as Bilam to be lost.
This Sforno is difficult to understand. Can we imagine anyone more evil than Bilam? He was gifted with the status of a navi, thereby granted a fantastic power: the ability to bless or curse. His words were potent. He was now going to use his power to annihilate a people. His intentions were to wipe out the Jews – every man, woman, and child. And he would have succeeded had Hashem not stopped him.
Why would Hashem allow such a man to do teshuvah? And even more, why would Hashem change nature to save such a lowlife?
To answer this question, we need a different perspective.
Chovos Ha’Levovos says that a person should ask himself the following question: Before I was created, what did I do that made me worthy of being created? I recognize I didn’t exist and that Hashem made me. It must be that Hashem felt it was worthwhile to bring me into being. What is it that I did that made me worthy of being created?
The answer is nothing. Because before you were created, you weren’t. And that is the point. There is nothing you did to make it fit for Hashem to create you. Hashem made you because of loving-kindness.
Hashem is the Benefactor. Hashem wishes to give. Generous and magnanimous, Hashem wishes to shower His good upon others. Not because they deserve it, and not because they merit it, but because that is the nature of Hashem: to bestow as much blessing as He can. Hashem created everything – the stars, the sun, the moon, the oceans, and the rivers – to give to man.
Man, however, has to earn that good. To do so, he must perfect himself. Hashem is the source of all perfection. Hashem put man into this world charged with the mission of making himself as much like Hashem as humanly possible. When man is finished with his job here, he enjoys closeness to Hashem in accordance with the amount he perfected himself here.
That, however, is the inherent obstacle. Hashem is beyond time, beyond space, and beyond any limitation. By definition, Hashem is beyond human understanding. Hashem wants man to emulate Him – but that is impossible.
To allow for this, Hashem manifests Himself cloaked in character traits. Those traits guide Hashem’s interaction with the world. Now, based on how Hashem acts, man can see Him.
Justice Versus Mercy
Hashem originally thought to create the word with Din (justice) as the guiding attribute. Din is proper. Din is appropriate. Din, however, demands total accountability. Din demands absolute responsibility. And Din demands immediate consequences. You are liable for what you did. No excuses. No mitigating circumstances. You brought this about.
If Din were the operating attribute, no human could exist. Man will err. Man will slip. Therefore, Hashem created the world with Rachamim (mercy) as the predominant force. Now our actions are viewed through the lens of understanding. Mitigating circumstances are taken into consideration, and time is granted. Time to recognize our errors. Time to correct our ways.
Therefore, Hashem manifests Himself in the almost human character trait of mercy – the key word being almost. Hashem is not human. And Hashem is not restricted. When Hashem wears an attribute, it is endless and boundless. When Hashem wears the attribute of mercy, it has no limit.
This seems to be the answer to Bilam. Granted he was wicked and granted he set out to use his gifts for evil, but Hashem wished for his good. Hashem still loved him. Despite everything he was planning to do, Hashem didn’t want him destroyed. And so Hashem tried guiding him to teshuvah even if that meant changing nature and making a donkey speak.
There is a vital lesson for us in these words. Bilam was a gentile who turned to wicked ways. Yet Hashem still waited for his teshuvah. How much more so for the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov? Hashem waits with open arms saying, “Return, My children. Return.”