On one occasion, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l was delayed from setting out to an Agudas Yisrael convention by a man who was praying in the aisle (or doorway). The law is that one may not pass in front of someone who is in middle of the Silent Prayer (amida). So Rav Moshe stood there waiting patiently with his students while this man finished his prayers. His students wondered about Rav Moshe's strictness since there is a view that one can be lenient when a person is praying in a place where he is blocking other people's freedom of movement. Why, then, did Rav Moshe not rely on this leniency, especially since many people were waiting for him at the convention? He explained that he could not move because there was a brick wall in the way. That is, he realized that G-d's Presence is in front of someone who is praying.
I want to use this well-known story as a way of getting a handle on one of the key issues in this week's Torah portion, Perashat Balak. It concerns the meaning of the words we rely upon all too often: I can't...
When King Balak asked Bilaam to curse the Jews, the latter replied that even if he would be paid with all the gold and silver in Balak's treasure house, "he can't" transgress the word of G-d. Despite the very good reason Bilaam provided, Balak got enraged. We wonder, though: Couldn't he understand that some things are impossible?
The answer given by R' Shimshon Pincus zt"l is that there are two different types of "I can't." One type is simply a statement of fact, such as, "I can't jump up and touch the sun." This is how someone expresses that he is truly incapable of doing something even though he might really want to. But there is another kind of "I can't," such as "I can't go to a black-tie affair wearing a bathing suit!" This one is not final, not absolute. If someone would offer ten million dollars to the one who attends the black-tie affair in a bathing suit, some people just might change their "I can't" to "I can!" But, obviously, the "I can't touch the sun" will not change even if someone is offering twenty million dollars.
When Bilaam told Balak that he couldn't transgress the word of G-d, Balak understood him to mean that if he gets offered enough money, the "I can't" will change to an "I can." He obviously got frustrated when he realized that when Bilaam said "I can't," he meant that he was truly incapable due to G-d's opposition. Indeed, Bilaam did not need a large check from Balak to motivate him to curse the Jews. He hated the Jews no less than Balak, and wanted them gone. But Bilam understood that transgressing G-d's will was just like jumping up to touch the sun.