Bilaam Versus Abraham

July 1, 2015

4 min read


Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )

Three essential differences between Abraham and Bilaam.

"Whoever has three particular traits is counted among the students of Abraham, and whoever has three other traits is among the students of Bilaam. He who has a good eye, humility and contentedness is a student of Abraham, while he who has an evil eye, arrogance and greed is a student of Bilaam." (Talmud, Pirkei Avot 5:22)

In this week's Parsha, the Jewish people pass through the territory of Moav. Balak, the King of Moav, wants to wage war against the Jews, but realizes that attacking them physically is of no avail. Jewish survival is governed by spiritual laws, and thus the only method to defeat them is with spiritual powers. So King Balak hires the greatest spiritual master of the non-Jewish world, a man named Bilaam, to wage metaphysical warfare against the Jewish people.

Who was Bilaam? And what distinguishes him from a man like Abraham who used his powers for the betterment of mankind? The Talmud identifies three key traits; we'll examine them one by one.

Good Eye Versus Evil Eye

Someone who has a "good eye" will sincerely celebrate the success of others, while someone with an "evil eye" begrudges the success of others.

In Genesis 18:2, Abraham rushes to care for three nomadic strangers, as part of his constant striving to bring others closer to God. Contrast this with Bilaam, a hit-man hired to generate bad spiritual vibes against the Jews. Bilaam could have just as easily pursued victory by "blessing Moav;" instead he chooses the low road of cursing the Jews.

You can discover whether people have a good eye or an evil eye by seeing their reaction to another's good news. For example, if you drive up in your shiny new car, will others dance around with a chorus of "Mazel Tov?" Or will they sneer, simmer, and curtly blurt "That's nice"?

Here in Israel, I have my own method of determination. Whenever one of the rabbinic students becomes engaged, there is an elaborate announcement and celebration. Of course, it's easy for a married student to celebrate another's engagement. But I always pay close attention to the single students who are eager to get married themselves. How they react to another's engagement is a true test of their "eye."

In practicality, it's a good idea to be careful about boasting of our own success – whether it be wealth or children or good fortune of any kind. Because the sad reality is that many people are jealous, and in order to feel better they will secretly wish for you to lose what you have. Which is not to say that we should be paranoid or reclusive. But it does make sense to be somewhat modest and discreet, and to be selective with whom we share personal information. Flaunting oneself simply invites the possibility of "evil eye."

Humility Versus Arrogance

The next trait that distinguishes Abraham from Bilaam is "humility versus arrogance." As we discussed in Parshat Bamidbar, the definition of "humility" is to know one's place in relation to others – particularly vis-a-vis God. Abraham personified humility because his mission in life was to teach that all power derives directly from God.

Bilaam, meanwhile, went ahead and cursed the Jews, even though God clearly objected (Numbers 22:12). He saw God as a deity to be placated – or avoided altogether.

This relates to our own observance. When we encounter a mitzvah – whether it be giving charity, cleaning for Passover, or attending synagogue – do we view it as an obligation to be rid of, or as an opportunity to embrace?

Contentedness Versus Greed

The third trait is "contentedness versus greed." When Abraham journeyed to the Land of Israel – a metaphor for his spiritual journey – he was willing to reject luxuries in exchange for a life of principles and values. He was even willing to be thrown into a fiery furnace, rather than forsake his moral integrity.

Bilaam, on the other hand, was driven solely by the pursuit of riches. In fact, the Midrash even credits him with originating the concept of casinos and brothels. He was a free agent, a mercenary, a hired gun with no conscience. The very name Bilaam is a contraction of the words "Bi-lo Am," which means "without a nation." His loyalty was dictated by whoever offered the most money.

Practically, it is often difficult to discern someone's true intentions. Are they motivated to help mankind? Or are they self-serving and destructive? How do we discern?

The answer is found in our original source from Pirkei Avot, which distinguishes between the students of Abraham and the students of Bilaam. Why mention the "students?" Why not simply "distinguish between Abraham and Bilaam themselves?

The answer is that the truest expression of a person's character is through the students they produce. That is why Judaism says that when choosing a rabbi, character is more important than scholarship. Maimonides, in his magnum opus "Mishneh Torah," expresses this by listing the laws of character behavior ("Hilchos Deyot") BEFORE the laws of Torah study. You can be talented and wise, but still end up like Bilaam – if you don't work to develop good character.

Saddling the Donkey

There is yet one more example of the difference between Abraham and Bilaam. The Torah reports that each of them "arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey." (Abraham in Genesis 22:3, and Bilaam in Numbers 22:21). In Hebrew, the word for "saddled" (yach'vosh) is closely related to the verb "to conquer." And the word for "donkey" (chamor) matches the word for "physicality" (chomer.)

The interpretation is as follows: When Abraham "saddled his donkey," he conquered his physical drives in service of God. Thus when Abraham went to receive prophecy at Mount Moriah, he leaves the donkey behind (Genesis 22:5) – as if to say "I am free from the grip of desire."

Contrast this with Bilaam, who arose early in order to scheme the downfall of others in his pursuit of wealth and glory. In Bilaam's case it is the donkey itself who gets the prophecy (Numbers 22:25) – proving itself on a higher level than Bilaam himself! No wonder God predicts Bilaam's demise with the words: "Their forefather Abraham has already preceded you." (Talmud, Sanhedrin 102b)

Poetic Justice

It is encouraging to note that in the final analysis, everything works out for the good. In Numbers 24:5, as Bilaam attempts to curse the Jews, what emerges is a beautiful blessing instead: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places Israel." These are the first words that a Jew utters each morning when entering the synagogue to pray. For 3,000 years, Jews have used Bilaam's words to strengthen their commitment to God.

Perhaps this is the fulfillment of God's eternal promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you" (Genesis 12:3). May it always be so.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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