Sometimes we need to brake and reverse before we accelerate.
It is troubling to think that Hashem could have ever conferred His presence on Bil’am, who, as the narrative makes clear, was of deplorable character. His greed, stubbornness, and negativity are all overwhelmingly featured as he deceives Balak and tries to outwit Hashem. Why did Hashem select such a reprehensible person to be a navi?
Rashi (BaMidbar 22:5) explains that Hashem was concerned with a potential complaint from the nations of the world. At the end of days, when taken to task for their immoral behaviors and corrupt societies, the nations could claim that they never had an opportunity for self-improvement. Had they been provided with a prophet who could connect them with G-d, they may have actually become terrific people!
In order to preempt this defense, Hashem did, indeed, provide them with a navi: Bil’am. However, instead of self-reflection and repentance, the nations misused Bil’am’s abilities to further their sinful behavior. They sought his services to become wealthier, undermine enemies, and fulfill lustful fantasies. And with that, the nations had lost all credibility for any future excuses.
Consider this: Did Hashem really give those nations an honest chance? Of all prophets for this job, Hashem chose the evil Bil’am, the man Chazal describe as the epitome of jealousy, arrogance, and self-indulgence (Avos 5:19)! How reasonable was it to expect the people to improve their behavior with such a despicable excuse for a navi?
Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita has an insightful answer in his Taam VaDaas. If Hashem handpicked Bil’am as the world’s opportunity for self-improvement, then it must be that Bil’am was a worthy agent to fulfill that goal. At the time he was chosen, he had to have been a decent person with the potential to bring people closer to Hashem and spiritual success. However, it was this very authority and power as a navi that led Bil’am astray. Because they were already steeped in warped values and horrific behaviors, the people viewed their navi as another tool to exploit for their own desires. Instead of seeking inspiration and refinement, the masses flocked to their prophet to advance their own immoral pleasures and selfish desires. Unsurprisingly, after years of abusing his “connections” to facilitate evil behaviors, Bil’am deteriorated into the jealous, arrogant, and self-indulgent monster we see in our parshah.
The lesson here is quite powerful. Often, we feel that, if only we had the proper resources, we would become better people. With more money, we would be more charitable; more intelligence would lead to more Torah study, and more time would mean more attention for our loved ones. Unfortunately, this is not usually the case. Those who do not already prioritize these values will not suddenly become attuned to their significance when circumstances change. More money breeds more greed, more intellect opens the door to study other disciplines and more time equals more hours working or recreation.
Flooring the accelerator will propel one forward – in whichever direction the vehicle is already facing. Similarly, resources are only as useful in helping a person achieve the underlying values already held. This is why Bil’am’s opportunity as a navi ended in depravity, rather than in holiness. Only one who strives to uphold Torah values despite limited resources will be able to increase those endeavors as the wealth of opportunity blooms (Avos 4:9).
The first step toward self-improvement is clarifying our priorities now and beginning to implement our values on whatever scale currently possible. We need not wait for more money, time, or anything else to begin living our lives. Once we are headed in the right direction, we can use any future, additional resources to hit the accelerator and race toward our goals!