Bilam was a prophet who had the abilities and potential to match Moshe, but did not choose to be righteous. He was hired by Balak to curse the Jews. He was sought out because his abilities were famous. But he had an additional ability – he could identify a certain moment of the day in which God is angry.
How are we to understand this?
The Midrash teaches that originally, God wanted to create the world through a prism of strict justice – evil would be instantly punished, and good would be instantly rewarded. But it was found that existence would be untenable this way, and would never last. It was decided that an equal amount of mercy would be added to creation, and have the two balance into equilibrium.
What Bilam could identify was the moment of indignance at the literal “injustice” of existence not being held to account.
Tosfos in Brachos wonders how much someone could really manage to say in this brief and transitory moment, and answers that he could gaze at his targets and say “כלם” – “Destroy them”.
The Maharal points out how 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 – שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ – Appoint a king over yourselves (17:15). The function of the king is a hierarchy that organises and implements a structure. He perfects 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 run the system, and everything follows suit. This is the charge of every Jew – to become a master of the self – מלך – like the actual king, to perfect the structure.
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 fundamental 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.