God tells Bilam not to go with the messengers of Balak (Num. 22:12). Then, when Bilam seems to be obdurate, He says, “Go with them” (verse 20).
But in the Hebrew text a different word for “with” is used in each case. “Don’t go with them” uses the word im. “Go with them” uses et. The meaning of im is “total commitment”. Et indicates mere proximity – “You can accompany them, but don’t become part of their philosophy”.
What does Bilam actually do? He goes im the messengers (verse 21); no wonder God gets annoyed.
Rabbi Isaac Bernstein, who was a dynamic member of the rabbinate in London and New York, linked the story with a passage in Pirkei Avot 4:9 where a scholar is offered a high salary and invited to “dwell with us in our town”. The rabbi declines and says he would not dwell anywhere but a place of Torah.
What is wrong with the town to which he is invited? They want him im – “with” (i.e. totally identified with) them. However, it is not a place of Torah, and his presence would be a form of endorsement of their ideology and practices.
It reminds me that Samson Raphael Hirsch was a candidate for the London rabbinate in the 1840s. He was not successful, and a hundred-odd years later an author wrote what he called “A Purim Night’s Dream” in which he wondered aloud what would have happened if Hirsch had got the position.
Would Hirsch have altered Anglo-Jewry, or would Anglo-Jewry have altered Hirsch? No-one can be certain. It all hinges on whether London would have used the et or the im.