Sfas Emes blog
The Midrash relates the argument Bil’am used to try to convince God to side with the nations of the world against the nation of Israel. Bil’am’s point was simple. Would it not be better to be worshiped by seventy nations than one nation? At first glance, Bil’am’s argument to God was a good one. Does it not indeed make more sense to include the nations of the world?
God answered, the Midrash tells us, with a pasuk from Mishlei, “טוֹב פַּת חֲרֵבָה וְשַׁלְוָה־בָהּ מִבַּיִת מָלֵא זִבְחֵי־רִיב/Better dry bread and peace than a house full of contentious celebrations.” (Mishlei 17:1) The Midrash explains the metaphor. The dry bread represents the nation of Israel.The house full of contentious celebrations represents the nations of the world. God would rather be worshiped by the nation of Israel than the nations of the world if their purpose is to insert a wedge of discord between Him and Israel.
This answer seems to beg the question though for if each nation truly submits to God, why would God prefer Israel? The answer, the Chiddushei HaRim says, is that the nations of the world are disingenuous regarding their submission to God. While the nations of the world certainly accomplish great things, Chazal teach us that they are far from altruistic. Rather, their own interests motivate them. They may perform acts of kindness, but it is only to lord it over others. Bil'am himself subordinated himself to God, "... אִם־יִתֶּן־לִי בָלָק מְלֹא בֵיתוֹ כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב לֹא אוּכַל לַעֲבֹר אֶת־פִּי ה׳ אֱ־לֹהָי .../.. Were Balak to give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of God, my Lord …” (Bemidbar 22:18) Yet Chazal learn from this very pasuk that Balak really wanted all that money.
Sincerity, then, differentiates us from the nations of the world. God prefers our worship to theirs since it is sincere. The nations of the world use their submission to God as a springboard for self aggrandizement. The nation of Israel also submits. However, for our righteous, the submission is an end in and of itself. Even when we ask God to help us reach higher levels, it is to come closer to Him, to be able to submit even more.
Conventionally, a lowly soul – נֶפֶשׁ שְׁפֵלָה – one of the good character traits that Avraham Avinu teaches his students, is one who spurns the base desires and temptations of the physical world. Bil’am, Chazal tell us, had an expansive soul – נֶפֶשׁ רְחָבָה. He surrendered to his physical desires and used his stature to do so.
The Sfas Emes, however, gives us a deeper understanding of a lowly soul. Unlike Bil’am, it is one who does not use his work to come close to God in a self serving way. Of course, he will not use his service to God as a way of satisfying base desires. He also will not use his service to God as a means for reaching higher spiritual levels and gaining more spiritual power. Unquestionably, as a byproduct of his work, he will reach higher spiritual levels. But these achievements are not his goal. Instead, he uses those levels to further subordinate himself to the infinite God.
 Bemidbar R. 20:18
 Bava Basra 10b
 Avos 5:19