In Bilam’s second blessing to Benei Yisrael, he exclaimed, “Lo hibit aven be-Yaakov” (23:21), which appears to mean that God does not look at Benei Yisrael’s wrongdoing. At first glance, Bilam here announced that God overlooks our sins and does not hold us accountable for them – which, of course, cannot be true. The commentators therefore offered various different explanations of this phrase.
Onkelos translates this to mean not that God ignores Benei Yisrael’s wrongdoing, but rather that He examined them and found that they were not guilty of idolatry. Although Benei Yisrael certainly committed various sins, they did not worship idols. The verse continues, “ve-lo ra’a amal be-Yisrael,” and Onkelos explains this to mean that God found that Benei Yisrael did not engage in fraud and deceit. Therefore, as the verse concludes, “the Lord their God is with them” – He protects them and helps them. He is able to forgive their wrongdoing – of course, after they repent – as long as they refrain from idol-worship and unethical behavior.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests a different interpretation, based on his understanding of the word “aven” used here in reference to sin. According to Rav Hirsch, this word is associated with the word on, which denotes strength and power, and thus “aven” refers to the particular sin of misusing power. Rav Hirsch explains Bilam’s pronouncement to mean, “God did not foresee in Jacob any misuse of the greatness with which he was to be invested.” God knew that Benei Yisrael would use their stature for the sake of devoting themselves to His will, and not for sinful purposes. This is why, as the next verse states, “Keil motzi’am mi-Mitzrayim” – God brought Benei Yisrael from the depths of slavery in Egypt to the heights of power and prestige. He granted them this special stature because He knew with confidence that it would not be misused, that it would be challenged in the proper direction, towards the fulfillment of His will and the special mission for which Benei Yisrael were chosen.
Rav Hirsch’s explanation of this verse reminds us of the importance of carefully deciding how to use the many blessings we have been given in life. All of us enjoy “on” of some kind – our material assets, our family members, our social connections, our skills, our talents, and so much more. We are certainly entitled to enjoy all our blessings, but we are also expected to have the wisdom and discipline to utilize them properly, to use them to make our small contribution to the world, each of us in his or her own unique way.