Parshat Balak- Rav Shames
The Mishnah in Avot (5:19) contrasts the character traits of Bilam with
those of Avraham.
“Anyone who has the following three items is one of the students of
Avraham Avenu, and (one who has) three others is one of the students of Bilam. A
good eye, a humble mind and an undemanding soul are the characteristics
of students of Avraham Avenu. An evil eye, a haughty mind and a demanding
soul are the characteristics of the students of Bilam”.
The Mishnah is teaching us a lesson in moral behavior by contrasting two
very good models, each in their own specialty. The method that the
Mishnah chooses is interesting – the terminology used in both cases is not found
anywhere in the Torah. Never does it describe Avraham as an individual
with a “good eye”, nor is Bilam derided as the one with the “evil eye”.
Chazal have taken what seem to be minute details of the stories involving
these two characters and have formed a personality type from them.
Avraham refuses to take any spoils of war, refers to himself as “dirt and ash”
and only accidentally notices his wife’s beauty. On the other hand, Bilam
gains his labels by pointing out the grand offer that he would have refused had
it been offered, crowns himself with elaborate titles and is instrumental in
designing a plan to seduce Am Yisrael en masse with the daughters of
The combination that the Mishnah makes in order to describe an overall
and integrated view of the person is educationally significant. Chazal are
telling us to “connect the dots”. Throughout the Torah we are told
stories involving many different people, however it is very rare for a label to
be placed on an individual as being “good” or “bad”, “kind” or “cruel” or
any other generalization. I think the reason for this is that we are learning
about real people who share both positive and negative traits. Most life
situations are not black and white and require a balanced view of
possible gains versus potential loss in order to make the responsible decision.
The figures in the Tanach are presented in the stark humanity and critique is
leveled at all characters. (see last week’s parsha concerning Moshe and
Aharon for the prime example, regardless of which explanation we choose).
The danger in this type of methodology is that we tend to view each and
every incident as a distinct unit and, thereby, in some cases losing sight of the forest for the trees. The Mishnah is telling us to make the connection between the
seemingly unrelated statements and events in these two peoples lives and
to note the character traits revealed by their Freudian slips.
We are being urged to examine the whole and integrated person and try
to understand from where such statements and actions stem. We are to learn
how to develop ourselves as moral people from the sum total of the actions of
Avraham Avinu and to avoid the ethical pitfalls of which Bilam is the archetypal negative role model The Torah lifestyle is not simply a shopping list of
actions to be performed, but it is encompassed within a larger framework
which reflects morality and personal development.
If we pause here, we are left with a fairly simple message: “Be a student
of Avraham and not of Bilam” with the rationale being that this is the most
attuned to a religious lifestyle.
However the Mishnah continues:
“What difference is there between the fate of the students of Avraham and
those of Bilam? The students of Avraham enjoy this world and inherit the
world to come as it says….while the students of Bilam inherit Gehinom and
descend into the pit of destruction…..”
The TiferEt Yisrael points out that the “chidush” of the Mishnah is not
related to Olam Habah; one would assume that a disciple of Avraham Avenu
would merit the advantages of the next world while the followers of such
an evil person as Bilam would never be able to enjoy such reward. The
“chidush” is regarding this world!!
Those who have adopted and absorbed the ways of Avraham Avenu are
promised a quality-life in this very world. The motto made famous in
another Mishnah in Avot that he who is satisfied with his lot is the truly rich man rings true in our case as well. Avraham represents complete trust in God and being
content with anything and everything with which he is provided. A person
with such an attitude will enjoy this world and be the eternal optimist.
Bilam and his followers will always be looking over their shoulders
wondering if they have missed one thing or another. Even after experiencing
pleasure, they will never be satisfied, as they will always be plagued by the
thought of what they may have missed along the way. I am reminded of a story one
of my friends told me, many years ago, about his aunt and uncle who were
constantly remodeling their home. Year after year, project after project
they continued to add, change and improve their house. Despite the great
effort and expense that they had invested, they were never satisfied and,
in effect, lived most of their married life together in a construction zone,
sweeping the dust from corner to corner in order to achieve the elusive
perfect home. I obviously have no idea if these people will enjoy Olam
Habah, but it seems clear that they have not gotten much pleasure out of
Avraham Avenu’s nomadic tent was not simply an expression of an ascetic
lifestyle meant to facilitate entrance to a greater world. The tent was
the means through which he was able to achieve true pleasure in this world.