The power of speech is a concept of great importance in Judaism. The Torah describes how the world was created via speech, we see that speech allows a direct connection to Hashem through Tefilah, and speech can even cause physical damage, Tzara’at, if one isn’t careful with his or her speech. Indeed, Sefer Mishlei states (18:21), “Mavet VeChayim BeYad Lashon,” “Death and life are within the control of speech.”
Parashat Balak is perhaps the greatest example of the sheer power that exists in the human ability to voice one’s thoughts and of the effects that this voicing can have – both good and bad.
The Parashah begins with the Mo’avi king Balak’s plan to call upon Bilam, a Navi who has reached the highest level of speech, speaking directly with Hashem, and entreat him to come forth and curse Bnei Yisrael. After all, Bilam’s connection to Hashem is so strong that it is known that that which Bilam says comes to pass. Bilam is the paradigm of a master of speech who does not use his power to bless people and spread the word of Hashem; rather, he uses his great power to curse others.
Therefore, Hashem chooses the Aton (female donkey) to send a message to Bilam. Bilam has ignored his duty to serve Hashem at the highest possible level of speech, so he is reprimanded by a creature whose speech is not on the same level as Bilam’s. And yet, a Neis (miracle) allows this beast of burden to reach heights even greater than Bilam himself. But even this slap in the face is not enough for Bilam, who persists in his mission to curse Bnei Yisrael. He continues onward, reaches Balak and begins his efforts to curse Bnei Yisrael. But here he utterly fails in his mission, instead blessing Bnei Yisrael. He persists, trying time and time again to curse Bnei Yisrael, but instead continues to bless them with some of the greatest accolades ever recorded in reference to Bnei Yisrael. By the end of this whole saga, Bilam learns a great lesson about speech itself: ultimately, speech is a gift, and if it cannot be used correctly, it is a gift that can be withdrawn. Bilam sought to curse Bnei Yisrael, but Hashem refused to permit that, going as far as overriding Bilam’s right of speech.
This story is very similar to Paroh’s situation when dealing with the Makkot. After the first few Makkot, Paroh eliminates his own right to free speech – since he does not do Teshuvah, he becomes a tool in Hashem’s master plan, having his heart forcibly hardened. Clearly, speech is a powerful tool, with potential for greatness as well as darkness. However, it is a privilege to use, and we must be careful in its use, lest Hashem remove our right to free speech.
Hopefully, we all will learn from Bilam’s errors and use our speech only for devotion and service to Hashem.