Something happens to Balaam in the course of delivering blessings to the Israelites against his will. Something good happens inside him – though at first, he is resistant, merely a vehicle into which God places His words, by the end, Balaam has blossomed into a genuine seer and speaker, wholly embracing his role.
As my father, z”l, first pointed out to me, the Torah’s language changes through the course of Balaam’s various oracles. While in the first two, the Torah says Vayasem davar befiv, that God placed a word (or “thing”) in his mouth, by the third time, God’s spirit actually rests upon him, a term used for genuine prophecy.
Something breaks for Balaam in the course of the second oracle. Rashi comments on this Vayasem davar pefiv, “And He placed a thing in his mouth,” explaining that this time Balaam did not want to go back and report his blessing to King Balak. And so, Rashi says, God had to physically force him to do so by putting a “thing,” a bridle or a fish hook in his mouth, to lead him like an animal to the place God wanted.
What is the result of this experience of being treated like an animal – controlled and manipulated to do God’s will? Somehow, Balaam emerges from this experience to embrace his destiny. The Torah tells us next that he “saw” – something he was unable to do as well as his donkey earlier in the story – that it was good in God’s eyes to bless the people, and so did not go in search of magic, as before, but instead lifted up his eyes and again “saw” the people, at which point, “the spirit of God came upon him.”
The oracle which follows is arguably the most beautiful of the bunch, containing the phrase we adopted into our prayerbooks, mah tovu ohalekha. It is also the only one in which Balaam mentions himself as a positive player in his environment. In the first oracle, he refers to himself only as the one invited by King Balak, and in the second not at all. Here he begins: “Word of Balaam, son of Beor, word of the man whose eye is true. Word of him who hears God’s speech, who beholds visions from the Almighty.” Balaam seems to have hit his stride now, as oracle follow oracle after this one, as if some new spout of creativity has suddenly been opened inside him.
Balaam seems to me be an example of what can happen to a person when he stop resisting his destiny and begins to embrace whatever role God has set out for him. The process in Balaam’s case involves some letting go of ego. God has to remind him clearly who is in charge here, leading him like an animal, to do his job. Balaam needs to learn to be more like his faithful donkey.
The Hasidic masters talk often, in a positive way, of learning to do just this – negating one’s ego enough to be able to feel that God is one’s master, learning to follow and be obedient like an animal, while also not losing one’s human capacities for intelligence, creativity and freedom. Somehow, ironically, as in Balaam’s case, it is in the very negation of self that the self begins to blossom, to see and to speak of its own volition, through the freely acquired spirit of God. Balaam moves from God’s slave to God’s partner, but only by first going through some process of self-abnegation, of learning to understand himself as a vehicle or vessel for the divine. It is only when he can fully sublimate himself to God’s will that his own creativity and personhood can really grow and blossom through an attachment to God.
There is here, I think, the lost art of emptying oneself to be filled from above. Balaam began with a large ego, according to tradition, but ironically, this ego blocked him from greatness. Only once he could let it go in the manner of an animal simply following his master, only once he attached that self to its Source, only then could he be fully fulfilled.