Commenting on Hashem’s question to Bilam, “Mi ha’anashim ha’eileh imach?” Rashi writes, “l’hatoso ba,” Hashem caused Bilam to err. By asking such a question, G-d gave Bilam the impression that He is not all knowing. Bilam therefore thought that he could curse Bnei Yisrael without Hashem being aware and get away with it.
It sounds like Rashi is telling us that Hashem stacked the deck and set Bilam up for failure. “L’hatoso ba” doesn’t mean G-d was ambiguous and allowed Bilam to err. It means G-d deliberately wanted to cause Bilam to err. How could G-d do that? How is that fair? Since when does G-d want people to fail?
Secondly, Rashi’s comment here seems at odds with an earlier comment of his. Rashi (Braishis 3:9) comments that when G-d asked Adam, “Ayeka?” he did so in order to initiate conversation. It’s terrifying to be addressed by G-d, so G-d made it a little easier by opening the dialogue with some innocuous question. Why didn’t Rashi offer the same explanation for Hashem’s question here? (See Mizrachi)
R’ Chaim Hirschensohn in his Nimukei Rashi answers as follows: just as a chacham derives whatever he knows about G-d through his own thought process, the navi derives his perception of G-d through his neshoma. Knowledge of G-d is by definition subjective, as no human being can ever apprehend the objective reality of what G-d is. The brains or personality/neshoma of the individual becomes the prism through which everything is filtered. That’s why Chazal tell us that nevuah is given over only to someone who is wise, rich, happy, etc. -- in other words, a complete and fulfilled person, one who is not likely to distort or skew the message because of his own failures or biases.
That being said, sometimes an exception to the rule is called for. If there is a message that G-d wants to get out, even though the conduit does not measure up, he/she experiences nevuah. When Hashem “spoke” to Kayin right after he murdered Hevel, it’s not because Kayim was worthy of nevuah – it’s because Hashem needed to get a message to him. When Hashem gave nevuah to Bilam, it was not because Bilam met all the qualifications needed to deserve nevuah, but rather because at that time and place Hashem needed a navi la’goyim.
The downside to that happening is that just as the perfect navi interprets the experience of nevuah through the prism of his holy personality, the Bilams of the world interpret nevuah through the prism of their twisted personality. To Adam haRishon, "Ayeka?" was an innocent question. To Bilam, there was no such thing as an innocent question. Since his own speech was filled with hidden meanings designed to deceive and conceal, he interpreted other's words -- even G-d's -- in the same way, and therefore assumed there was a message that was not there.
Of course, writes R' Hirschensohn, G-d did not come to trip up Bilam. The subject of the verb "l'hatoso ba" is not G-d, but rather G-d's question, the words of nevuah. What Rashi is telling us is that the simple question experienced prophetically that could have been understood differently was the cause of Bilam's downfall, as, when filtered through his debased heart, they led him astray.