Posted on Thursday, July 5th, 2012
In Avot, it is written: Anyone who has these three traits is among the students of Avraham, and anyone who has three other traits is among the students of the wicked Bil’am. A benevolent eye, a contrite spirit (humility – R’ Ovadia M’Bartenura) and a subdued soul (healthy distancing from lust) are aspects of the students of Avraham our father. A begrudging eye, a haughty spirit, and a broad (indulgent – ibid.) soul are the characteristics of the students of the wicked Bil’am. What separates the students of Avraham from the students of Bil’am? The students of Avraham eat in this world and inherit the next world, as it says ‘I will cause my beloved to inherit, and I will fill his storehouses.’ But the students of Bil’am inherit Hell, and descend into the pit of destruction, as it says, ‘And You, G-d, bring them down into the pit of destruction, these bloodthirsty and deceptive people, they shall not live out half of their days. But I shall trust in you.’
It is certainly tempting to claim membership among the students of Avraham – just as it is tempting to identify with Moshe in his disagreement with Korach, with Avraham as he parts with Lot, with Noach as opposed to the rest of his generation, with Yosef instead of the brothers, with Yehoshua and Calev over the rest of the spies, and with David over Shaul. But the Torah is not given on order to congratulate us on what we have already accomplished – as R’ Yechiel Michael of Zlotchov was fond of saying, the Torah is eternal and comes to teach us the ways of return to G-d. It would behoove us to take a close look at just where we fall on the spectrum between Bil’am and Avraham. We might be surprised and dismayed by the results.
The result of that search might yield a more realistic view of our won spiritual accomplishments, and might offer us a more human understanding of Bil’am. Upon looking into the text itself, it is hard to see Bil’am as the horrible person the Sages present him to be – we see, basically, a flawed man, torn between his own desires and the wishes of his G-d. He is unable to perceive the subtle directives that come to him through the physical world (particularly through his donkey) because he is stubbornly pursuing his own goals. But is this not a statement that would apply to all of us? As for the Mishnah in Avot that describes his negative traits, one must look through the gifted eye of the Sages to understand how to interpret his passing comments as indications of his lust and arrogance.
Rambam finds proof for each of the Sages’ claims about Avraham and Bil’am. Avraham’s ‘good eye’ – his capacity to appreciate what he has been given is indicated in his refusal to take even a shoestring from the king of Sodom. His not being lustful is indicated by his telling Sarah, ‘Now I see that you are beautiful’ – implying that, until now, he never noticed her outward beauty. His humility is indicated by his statement ‘I am dust and ashes.’
Bil’am’s begrudging eye, according to Rambam, manifests in his desire for money. His lustfulness is proven by the fact that he ordered prostitutes sent out from Moav to seduce the Jews. As Rambam writes, good people don’t order bad things even for bad people. His arrogance is indicated by his constant reference to himself as ‘the one who hears
Rashi finds different clues – his comment to Balak’s messengers ‘if Balak were to give me all the gold and silver in his house’ is Rashi’s proof that he desires money. ‘And Bil’am lifted his eye’ (24:2) is proof for Rashi that Bil’am has an evil eye.
The Sages’ gifts for bringing out the colors of the text are unfathomable, but it is necessary to note that each of these proofs is relatively subtle in nature. Bil’am’s indemnification is drawn from passing comments, inferences, and character sketches – just as we, in ‘Freudian’ style, might indicate our own true nature through the examples we use, through how our eyes are drawn to certain things, or through incidental comments that we make. Most of us are, ultimately, in approximately the same category as Bil’am. Perhaps the only difference is like the Piazetzner Rebbe writes in ‘To Heal the Soul’ – the only difference between you and the criminal behind bars is that he expressed it and you did not.
Well we might say, we do mitzvot, we pray, we learn Torah. But it is quite possible to do ‘good’ and to still be a student of Bil’am. For these traits – a good eye, a contrite spirit, a subdued soul - are all outside the realm of Jewish Law. There is no law to be humble, or to have a good eye. It would certainly set us at ease to have external references for how we are doing on the Avraham-Bil’am question. But delivering ease is not the Torah’s purpose. Even fulfilling G-d’s commandments to the letter cannot guarantee that we are among the students of Avraham.
After all, Bila’m built seven altars – as many as our forefathers – three times, bringing two offerings on each. He is capable of prophecy and poetry – poetry worthy of being included in the daily recitation of the Shema, according to Brachot 12b. Similarly, as R’ Menachem Mendel of Kotzk points out, Avraham was intent on destroying the Jewish people (by sacrificing Yitzhak) just as Bil’am was. It is quite possible to do something ‘bad’ and be among the students of Avraham, and to do something ‘good’ and be among the students of Bil’am. Certainly ‘what we do’ is not ‘who we are’, and the difference between Bil’am and Avraham is more a question of who we are. And who we are, today, might not be as far from Bil’am as we would like it to be.
But perhaps there is an even more subtle distinction between the students of Bil’am and the students of Avraham. Perhaps the distinction is not so much ‘who we are’ as ‘who we want to be.’ Bil’am does not show a preference between doing ‘good’ and doing ‘bad’. He is criminally ambiguous, seeking permission from G-d to go curse the Jews. Lacking any moral conviction, he seems perfectly happy with his bad character traits. A student of Avraham might be caught in the same vices, might harbor an equally deep desire for money and recognition, and might be quite proud of himself for having contact with the Divine. But the student of Avraham wants to do good, to be good, to know
G-d’s will and to do it. As R’ Alexandri writes in Brachot 17a, ‘It is our will to do your will. What is holding us back? The leaven in the dough, and our servitude to the nations.’
We see no indication in Bil’am of desire to do G-d’s will. That desire, at the very least, must be present to make one a student of Avraham, though it may not manifest in a tangible way.
It will be difficult to discern, even within one’s self, just what one’s motives are. Perhaps one is always at the service of the self. Perhaps one is incapable of overcoming the gravity of lust for personal gain, in all it’s subtle manifestations. The question of who one’s teacher really is – Bil’am or Avraham – might remain forever a question. We might vacillate like a pendulum between these two poles, forced to recommit ourselves daily to the service of G-d, as Bil’am’s Pit of Destruction yawns beneath us, beckoning.
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