Bilaam desperately wants to go with King Balak’s men to fulfill what he believes is his destiny to curse the Jewish people. Knowing of his own relationship with G-d, however, he will not accept the job until he is given permission from G-d. He makes this quite clear to Balak’s first agents.
Yet when G-d finally does acquiesce, saying, “If the men have called you specifically, go with them with the understanding that you’ll only be able to say what I tell you to say,” (22:20) why does He then get angry when Bilaam goes? (22:21-22)
The answer lies in a subtlety that is lost in an English translation. G-d made it very clear to Bilaam that “You will not go ‘imahem.’” (22:12) However, the permission He grants is to ‘go ‘itam.’” (22:20)
Two Hebrew words for “with” are “im,” ayin mem, and “et,” alef tav. “Et” has other meanings in the Torah as well, such as “to, in, or from,” and it most often appears as a grammatical tool connecting a verb to its object, or preceding a noun. According to the Even-Shoshan Concordance, the “et” meaning “with” appears hundreds of times in Tanakh. Is there a difference between the “with” of “im” and the “with” of “et”?
In the context of Bilaam’s assignment, there seems to be a big difference. Bilaam firmly believes that G-d is “imo.” (22:19) Whatever that relationship may be, G-d instructs him not to have a similar relationship with Balak’s emissaries, “Lekh itam.” Bilaam seems to ignore this when he goes “im” them – thereby fueling G-d’s anger and causing the angel to stop him on the road. After the entire donkey/angel incident, however, Bilaam is instructed by the angel to go “im” Balak’s officers. (22:35)
I think that G-d assigning to go “et” them implies there will be a distance between the prophet and those hiring him. That Bilaam will only say what G-d lets him say is understood when the prophet goes in accompaniment because it’s a job (“et”) as opposed to he is putting his heart and soul into the assignment (“im”). While not comparable (because murder is murder) one might suggest a hired assassin who kills for a paycheck versus one who does it because he enjoys the thrill of the kill are not to be judged by others the same way.
In response to the first envoy sent to him, Bilaam was told he could not go and could not curse the people. In 22:12-13, Bilaam only mentioned that he could not go, and left out that he could not curse the people. Similarly, once Bilaam was given permission to go, he never let on to the officers that he was constrained in what he could say. He went “im” them because he wanted, heart and soul, to be with them, and he believed he’d be able to do what he wanted.
Only after the encounter with the angel, when the instruction regarding what he’d be able to say was repeated in stronger terms (22:35) was he able to express to Balak (22:38) that he’d only be able to say what G-d allows him to say. And this is why he could be given permission to go “im” the emissaries, because now, no matter what his heart and soul will dictate, he understands and makes it understood that he may personally want to do exactly what Balak wants him to do, but he will only be able to do what G-d allows him to do.
In addressing this question, the Netziv shares his own observations about the differences between going “et” versus going “im.” Following on his coattails, perhaps in the specific context of people traveling together, this distinction applies. Those who go “et” others, are walking on the same path, but their minds are in different places. Those who walk “im” others, not only share a physical space but also share a mental and perhaps spiritual state of being.
People who go “et” others (different mindsets) in the Torah include: Terach with his family on the way to Haran; Lot going with Avram on his continued journey to Canaan; Lot immediately before the fight that caused him to separate from Avraham; Avraham with his lads to sacrifice his son. Avimelekh and company, as they depart from Yitzchak after making a treaty; Yaakov and his sons when they went to Egypt, all with different hopes for the future; the Egyptians who came with Yosef to bury Yaakov.
People who go “im” others (same mindset) in the Torah include: Lot going with Avram after the events in Egypt (after seeing G-d help Avram in a tight situation) [soon after, Lot separates “me’imo” to move to S’dom]; Avraham accompanying the angels on their way to destroy S’dom; Lot and his daughters escaping from S’dom; Eliezer and the servants looking to find a wife for Yitzchak; Rivka’s choice to go with Eliezer to be Yitzchak’s wife; Yaakov with Lavan (until he is no longer “imo” (Bereishit 31:2); 400 men with Eisav; the brothers of Yosef when they go to bury their father.
It is interesting to note that like Bilaam, Lot is the main figure who jumps back and forth. Perhaps this is because, like Bilaam, he was an opportunist who came close when it was good for him, but distanced himself when things did not work out.
Both kinds of relationships are healthy and normal when they are utilized in the contexts in which they are meant to take place. May we merit to have an equal and consistent balance of “et” and “im” relationships.