Avraham and Bilaam: Total Opposites

June 21, 2021

6 min read


Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9 )

Pirkei Avot, 5:19: Anyone who has in his hands these three things, is from the students of Avraham, our Father; and three other things, is from the students of the wicked Bilaam : A good eye, lowly spirit, and humble soul – is from the students of, Avraham, our Father. A bad eye, haughty spirit, and greedy soul – is from the students of the wicked Bilaam…

The Torah Portion primarily focuses on the non-Jewish Prophet, Bilaam. The Sages tell us that in order to offset the non-Jews’ complaint that they did not have a Navi on the level of Moshe, God gave them Bilaam whose prophecy was, in certain ways, on as high a level as that of Moshe. Yet, it is evident that he was in no way comparable to Moshe in terms of character traits. Interestingly, the Rabbinic sources do not focus on the differences between Bilaam and Moshe, rather they focus far more on the contrast between Bilaam and another great Jew, Avraham. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) delineates the positive traits of Avraham and how Bilaam had the negative version of those very traits – Avraham had a good eye, was humble and was not lustful. Bilaam had a bad eye, was arrogant and was lustful. The question arises, as to if there is any allusion in the Torah that inspired the Rabbis to put together these two characters from totally periods in the Torah narrative?

It appears that on close analysis there are two, ostensibly totally different episodes involving the two men that bear numerous, uncanny similarities along with striking differences, that were observed by the Sages.

Firstly, both men went on a journey on a specific mission – Avraham to perform the binding of Isaac, and Bilaam to try to curse the Jewish people. Both got up early in the morning, and both went on donkeys which they saddled themselves1, and both were accompanied by two lads.

On their respective journeys, both met powerful metaphysical obstacles to their mission. The Satan (the term used for the negative power that tries to cause people to sin) tried to prevent Avraham from reaching Har Moriah in various ways. Similarly, an Angel blocked Bilaam on his journey. Both men overcame these obstacles to continue on their mission.

Now that we have seen the similarities in numerous details of these two episodes, it is necessary to note the huge differences between the behavior of the two men, and indeed in the whole nature of their mission. Firstly, Avraham’s purpose in the Binding of Isaac was to totally submit his own will to the will of God to do something that went against all his natural instincts and desires. Bilaam’s purpose in his journey was to do whatever he could to avoid God’s will so he could fulfil his own desires, and his ultimate goal was to harm God’s people.

On Avraham’s journey to the Binding of Isaac, the Satan sends numerous obstacles to persuade him to use his own logic to justify not following God’s command. Yet Avraham keeps going, determined to loyally follow God’s incredibly difficult instruction. On the other hand, Bilaam constantly uses his own logic to rationalize that God is supportive or at least tolerant of his plans to curse God’s people. One striking example of this is when God first appears to Bilaam after the Moavite request of him to curse the Jewish people. God very clearly tells him not to go with the Moavite officers to curse the Jews because the Jewish nation is blessed. However, when Bilaam reports this to the Moavite officers, he adds an important inference. He tells them, “HaShem has refused to let me go with you.”2 Rashi explains that he was implying to them that the reason he could not go with them is because the officers that were sent to bring him were not of sufficient stature for such an important person. Rather, if they would send more important people, then God would perhaps allow Bilaam to go.3 This seems to be the source of the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers that Bilaam was arrogant. He distorted God’s words from being a warning not to go, to being a testament to his own importance.

Indeed, it seems that all the negative traits that Bilaam is ascribed in that Mishna are prevalent in this episode and provide the key to why he so stubbornly continued in his path despite God’s repeated attempts to show him the error of his ways. His arrogance enabled him to think that he could manipulate HaShem to allow him to curse the people, and made him believe that God cared about his honor. His greed drove for the great wealth promised to him caused him to blindly continue on this path. And his bad eye was the root of his great hatred for the Jewish people that also played an important part in his determination to curse them and even destroy them.4

Some commentaries suggest that the most defining trait of the three was his arrogance.5 In contrast, it was Avraham’s great humility that enabled him to withstand all the tests that the Satan put in front of him. Each test was challenging his ability to innocently follow God’s ways without using his own great intellect and understanding to try to rationalize a way out of this incredible challenge.

To return to our initial question of why Chazal chose to contrast Bilaam with Avraham in particular – it appears the Torah itself gave numerous clues showing the similarities in the key episode in the two men’s lives, and at the same time, showed how they acted in exactly the inverse way from each other. Bilaam’s arrogance (and other bad traits) caused him to continually fail his test of submitting to God’s will, while Avraham’s humility enabled him to succeed in this test, the most difficult test faced by any man.

The Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers is conveying to us a powerful lesson. When a person acts in an arrogant way, he is not just acting in a vacuum. He is in fact acting as a student of Bilaam with disastrous consequences. And in contrast, when he acts with humility, he becomes a student of Avraham, with all the positive consequences that flow from that.

  1. Bamidbar, 22:21; Rashi, Dh: Vayahavosh: It is important to note that there are subtle differences in the words used to describe these events – for example, with regard to Avraham, it says ‘vayashekem baboker’ whereas with Bilaam, it states, ‘Vayakam baboker’. Indeed, Chazal compare the two and say that Avraham got up with more zrizus to fulfil the Akeidah than did Bilaam in his quest to curse the Jews.
  2. Bamidbar, 22:13.
  3. Rashi, Ibid, Dh: Lehaloch imachem.
  4. See Rashi, Bamidbar, 22:11.
  5. See Darkei Avos, Volume 2, p.1082.
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