Bilam was a prophet who had the abilities and potential to match Moshe, but usurped his skills and talents for personal gain and celebrity. He was hired by Balak to curse the Jews because his statements were famously effective.
Chazal understood that he could identify a certain moment of the day in which God is “angry”, and in that moment, release God’s anger on his target.
What does that even mean?
The Midrash teaches that originally, God sought to create the world through a prism of strict justice; evil would be instantly punished, and good would be instantly rewarded. But existence would be untenable this way, and could never last. It was decided that an equal measure of mercy would be fused to creation, and the two balanced into equilibrium.
What Bilam could identify was the moment of indignance and outrage at the literal “injustice” of existence not being held to account.
Tosfos in Brachos wonder how much someone could really manage to squeeze in to a brief and passing moment, and answer that he could cast his gaze on targets and say “כלם” – “Destroy them”. This was the curse he would have attempted to lay on the Jews..
The Maharal analyses how potent this curse would truly be. כלם is the reverse anagram of מלך – king, a critical function in Judaism; in Devarim, Moshe’s final speech to the people, he tells them the mitzva of appointing a king when they settle the land of Israel – שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ – Appoint a king over yourselves (17:15). The function of the king is a hierarchy that organises and implements a governmental structure. He organises the system.
In the book of Shmuel, the prophet is approached and asked for a king “like the tribes and nations have”, and they are rebuked. But weren’t they correct; was it not one of things Moshe told them?
The Maharal explains that מלך is the initial letters of מח, לב, כבד – brain, heart, liver. These are identified as metaphors for the procedure and development of action. There is a thought, a feeling, and an instinct. The order is critical – the brain, the intellect has to operate the system, and everything follows suit. This is the charge of every Jew – to become a master of the self – מלך – like an actual king, to perfect the structure of the self and surroundings.
What the Jews asked Shmuel was not for this king – they wanted a king “like the tribes and nations have”. This is not the kingdom function that is critical to the Jews essential makeup.
What Bilam tried to do was invert this capacity – he wanted to curse the Jews “כלם” – the reverse of מח, לב, כבד, and the order would degenerate into כבד, לב, מח – where the instinct is dominant, and intellect and soul are enslaved to it – the antithesis of the Jews’ charge, and truly the ultimate curse.