When Balak’s distinguished messengers visited Balaam to hire him to curse the Israelites, the Almighty gave Balaam two directives: he may not go with them and he may not curse the Jewish nation. The continuation of the story raises a number of questions. When Balaam then turned down the messengers’ request, he merely told them the first directive that God did not permit him to go with them. He omitted the second point that he was also not permitted, even without leaving his present location, to curse the Jews. After the messengers return to Balak and report their failed mission, Balak then sends another group of even more distinguished dignitaries to request Balaam’s assistance, and God acquiesces. Putting aside the obvious question of why Balaam was now allowed to go, why did Balak send another contingent after Balaam had already refused? Also, why did he send more distinguished agents?
Rashi’s (1040-1105) explanation of Balaam’s original negative response to the messengers is a key that unlocks the understanding of this sequence of events. The essence of this key is Balaam’s inflated ego. Balaam said to them: “Go to your land, for the Lord has refused to give me [permission] to go with you” (Bamidbar 11:13). Rashi provides the unwritten intonation of Balaam’s statement. When he said “to go with you,” explains Rashi, Balaam stressed the end of the sentence to imply that the messengers were the problem, but not the message. He gave the false impression that in essence he could go and he could carry out the curse, but the only impediment was that it was beneath his honor and dignity to accept an invitation from such undistinguished emissaries. Due to his haughtiness, he could not reveal that he was a mere pawn of the Almighty. He therefore portrayed his inability to go with them as conditional rather than absolute, did not reveal his inability to curse the people, and even went so far as to imply that the Almighty himself demanded that he receive more honor. It was a result of this communication that Balak sent more distinguished messengers.
Although Balaam’s behavior appears to be so blatantly duplicitous and openly dishonest, in actuality it may be easier than one might think to fall into his behavioral paradigm. Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (born 1912), a prominent elder Israeli Rosh Yeshiva and author, makes the startling assertion that Balaam’s haughtiness didn’t lead him to be dishonest – he was actually not dishonest at all. Rather, his haughtiness led him to subconsciously misinterpret the basis of the Almighty’s response in a way that suited his ego. According to this explanation, although Balaam may have known way deep down in his subconscious heart of hearts that he was wrong, practically speaking, however, he actually and sincerely believed that he was forbidden to go with the messengers because of a slight to his honor. Therefore when he related this to them, he related it as what he saw as fact rather than contrived fiction. This is a common pitfall, writes R. Shteinman, of the haughty. They deny, due to subconscious mental gymnastics that result in a state of numb denial of their hubris, that they are acting out of self interest and instead adamantly represent themselves to be acting out of deep concern for the honor of the Torah. When someone purports to be acting out of altruistic or religious concern, there is often reason to suspect that these claims may actually belie the true crude and selfish motivation that remains unexpressed. If, to some degree, haughtiness is present in every person, then Balaam indeed has a lesson to teach us all.