At the end of his first blessing to Benei Yisrael, Bilam proclaimed, “May my soul die the death of [their] upright ones, and may my end be like theirs!” (23:10) – wishing that he would die the way the righteous among Benei Yisrael die. The Ramban explains that Bilam saw how the righteous earn a share in Gan Eden after death, whereas the wicked are condemned, and so he expressed his wish that he die in a state of piety like the righteous among Benei Yisrael. Seforno explains in a slightly different vein, suggesting that Bilam expressed his willingness to die right there and then if he could then earn a share in the afterlife enjoyed by the righteous.
Or Ha-chayim offers a variety of different interpretations of this verse, one of which is that it speaks of Bilam’s wish to repent just before his death. Recognizing the enormous gulf separating between his sinful life and the sacred lifestyle of Benei Yisrael, Bilam felt incapable of even aspiring to such an exalted level. The best he felt he could hope for was to experience a change of heart in old age, as he lay frail seeing his end rapidly approaching. Only then, he felt, could he perhaps change and begin to resemble the “upright ones” of Benei Yisrael.
Bilam’s feeling of despair, as depicted by Or Ha-chayim, is a feeling we often experience when encountering greatness. When we meet, observe or hear of somebody who excels in a certain area far beyond anything we see ourselves being capable of, we instinctively despair, as Bilam did, figuring that we stand no chance of ever reaching that level of excellence. Encountering outstanding scholars or exceptionally pious individuals can often have a discouraging effect, leaving us feeling helplessly small and unaccomplished. However, Bilam’s reaction to the sight of Benei Yisrael is not a model for us to follow. Whereas Bilam – as described by Or Ha-chayim – reacted with despair, figuring that he could aspire only to repent in his final days of life, we should react to an exposure to greatness by sincerely resolving to inch closer to greatness. Even if we truly believe that we will never actually reach that level, we should commit ourselves to advancing. Encountering greatness should not discourage us from trying, but rather inspire us to move forward. At those moments in life when we feel small and unaccomplished, our conclusion should be that we should try harder to improve, not that we are forever stuck in our current condition.