1. BILAAM AND AVRAHAM: TWO ENDS OF THE SPECTRUM
The famous Mishnah in Avot teaches that whoever has an evil eye, haughty spirit, and a strong desire to pursue pleasure and materialism is a disciple of Bilaam. In contrast, whoever has a good eye, humble spirit, and self-restraint is a disciple of Avraham (Ch. 5). Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves why Avraham and Bilaam are chosen by the Tanna to represent the two ends of the spectrum. Wouldn’t Moshe or Aharon also be a perfectly suitable example of a mentor of these three positive traits? And wouldn’t Pharaoh or Lavan also serve as a mentor of these negative traits?
The fact is that the very names Avraham and Bilaam already suggest a contrast. In Hebrew, the name Bilaam communicates the concept of bli am – without a nation. The name Avraham, on the other hand, means Av Hamon Goyim – the father of many nations. And indeed, history bears this out: Both the Islamic and Christian nations trace their roots back to Avraham. Avraham’s salient traits – as enumerated above – may well be the keys to his ultimate success in “nation building.” Bilaam, on the other hand, embodies the power not of building, but of destroying. With his three salient negative traits, he was the obvious choice of King Balak when the latter sought to destroy the Jews. Let us take a look at the three key traits identified by the Tanna in Pirkei Avot, and see how they apply both on the national and the personal level.
Hot Pursuit of Pleasure
King Solomon said: לתאוה יבקש נפרד (משלי יח’ א’) . Rabeinu Yonah explains (in Shaarei Teshuva) that when someone in a relationship is seeking materialism, he is essentially seeking to be a loner. When relationships are built on both parties’ shared interests in pursuing pleasure and materialism, the relationship can only last as long as the fun lasts. Once the fun ceases, the relationship will most likely wither. Furthermore, when one is focused on oneself, the needs of the other person are easily overlooked. The only relationships that will last – especially marriage – are those where both parties share goals and life ambitions. Thus, we can see how Bilaam’s emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure works against any long-term bond or union.
On a national level, pleasure-seeking and self-centeredness can destroy even the greatest of economies. Neither a quick fix can nor a charismatic president can set things right. What can work is a change from the “Bilaam approach” to the “Avraham approach.” Avraham was the epitome of kindness, going out of his way to live in a desert with an open tent to all passersby in order to be there when people needed him the most – and without expecting anything in return. Only with this ethic can a nation can be built and preserved.
Another tendency that can destroy any nation or relationship is haughtiness, which stems from an exaggerated sense of self-importance. If a husband (or wife) believes that he is greater then his spouse, this can only cause distance between them. It is important to feel important, but not to feel more important than others. While Bilaam is the archetype of haughtiness and self-importance, Avraham is just the opposite. He would ask visitors who wished to thank him for his food and hospitality to thank G-d instead.
Bilaam wanted to harm the Jews in the desert by unleashing his “Evil Eye” against them, as we will explain. But he was unable to do so. (כד’:ה’) וירא ישראל שוכן לשבטיו. .. מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל When he saw the entrances of the Israelite tents not facing one other, he proclaimed: “how great are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel.” What was it about the arrangement of the Israelite tents that compelled Bilaam to utter a blessing instead of the curse he wanted to deliver?
To understand the dynamics here, we will need to understand a bit about the evil eye.
One risks arousing the evil eye if he boasts about his success to another person. This sounds mystical, but it is really no more mystical than mental telepathy. We cannot underestimate the damage caused in any community because of boasting about one’s successes or possessions to the ones who don’t have much of either.
The result of the evil eye may be the loss of those resources, which brings in its wake an additional nightmare. The ones who used to have money, and flaunt it, now try to conceal the new reality. If only they would have been more careful, how much easier their lives would be today! Tragically, they may continue to live at a standard they know they can never again get back to. To do this, they find themselves borrowing money without any realistic plan about how to pay it back (which is stealing in the eyes of the Torah). Alternatively, they may lower their lifestyle and lower their heads in shame, and/or leave their high-class social group. Both alternatives are excruciatingly painful, sometimes causing families and even communities to drift apart.
With all his evil heart, Bilaam wanted to inflict this fate on our nation. He wanted to point a finger at the Jews and claim that they, too, flaunt and boast about their success. But upon seeing their tent openings not facing one another, he realized that no-one is trying to show off his standard of living, and no-one is looking to keep up with the Jonas’. Those people blessed with wealth followed Avraham’s great example of using all the excess resources to help others.
Avraham and Bilaam did share one trait: energetic commitment to their ideals.
When Bilaam was allowed by G-d to pursue his mission, he did so with alacrity, saddling his donkey early at daybreak. He expected not only to stop the Jewish People in its tracks, but also to pocket an enormous payment from King Balak. In contrast, when Avraham was asked by G-d to sacrifice his only son – his very future – he did so with the same alacrity. Although Avraham expected to see his dreams shattered and lose everything that was precious to him, he went ahead without hesitation at daybreak. Indeed, he did so with the inner happiness that comes with serving G-d – in the words of the piyut: עין במר בוכה ולב שמח (the eye crying bitterly, but with a happy heart).
If we want to make the world a better place to live in, we can do no better than to follow in the ways of our great Forefather Avraham, and cultivate in ourselves a good and generous eye, a humble spirit, and the self-restraint that keeps us from self-destructive over-indulgence.
2. Bitter Aftertaste of Honey
לא תאר את העם כי ברוך הוא (במדבר כ”ב: י”ב)
Do not curse the nation, for it is blessed. (Numbers 22:12)
When Bilaam heard that the Jews are a blessed nation, he said to G-d: “If they are blessed, allow me to bless them.” The Holy One responded in the negative: “They do not need your blessing because they are already blessed.” Rashi explains this response by citing the folk saying about the wasp: “I want neither your sting nor your honey.”
Applying this to modern times, we see that there are two ways that the future of the Jewish people can be threatened. One way, of course, is through the sting of our enemies. We felt this most recently during the Holocaust when one third of our nation was wiped out. But there is another threat, the threat of honey. The honey of the gentile nations that host us – their kindness and acceptance – can ultimately threaten our future even more than the sting. As Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l noted, we have lost more Jews to intermarriage in America than we lost in the Holocaust!
Of course, we must accept that we are still in exile, and show respect and appreciation to the gentiles who host us in their countries. Still, if we get too close, and what is sweet to them becomes sweet to us, then our people are in danger of losing both its identity and its future.
We raise a cup of wine and sing on the night of the Passover Seder: שבכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותנו והקדוש ברוך הוא מצילנו מידם
(In every generation, they stand up against us and attempt to eliminate us. But the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.)
There were many evil people over the generations that wanted to get rid of us. Some showed it, and others did not. However, we must guard against the נשיקה (kiss) as much as we are guard against theנשיכה (bite).
This major truth of Jewish survival applies not only to becoming overly friendly with our gentile neighbors and colleagues. It also applies to building our life’s values along the same “honeyed” lines as theirs. Indeed, if we want to appreciate the honey in our values and lifestyle, we will have to uproot many of the non-Jewish values that may have seeped into our orientation. This is not an easy task because those alien values may have seeped in through the most subtle channels: movies, songs, and even advertisements.
3. WHEN I CAN’T SAY “I CAN’T”
On one occasion, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt”l was delayed from setting out to an Agudas Yisrael convention by a man who was praying in the aisle (or doorway). The law is that one may not pass in front of someone who is in middle of the Silent (Shemoneh Esrei) Prayer. So Rav Moshe stood there waiting patiently with his students while this man finished his prayers. His students wondered about Rav Moshe’s strictness since there is a view that one can be lenient when a person is praying in a place where he is blocking other people’s freedom of movement. Why, then, did Rav Moshe not rely on this leniency, especially since many people were waiting for him at the convention? He explained that he could not move because there was a brick wall in the way. That is, he realized that G-d’s Presence is in front of someone who is praying.
I want to use this well-known story as a way of getting a handle on one of the key issues in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Balak. It concerns the meaning of the words we rely upon all too often: I can’t…
When King Balak asked Bilaam to curse the Jews, the latter replied that even if he would be paid with all the gold and silver in Balak’s treasure house, “he can’t” transgress the word of G-d. Despite the very good reason Bilaam provided, Balak got enraged. We wonder, though: Couldn’t he understand that some things are impossible?
The answer given by R’ Shimshon Pincus zt”l is that there are two different types of “I can’t.” One type is simply a statement of fact, such as, “I can’t jump up and touch the sun.” This is how someone expresses that he is truly incapable of doing something even though he might really want to. But there is another kind of “I can’t,” such as “I can’t go to a black-tie affair wearing a bathing suit!” This one is not final, not absolute. If someone would offer ten million dollars to the one who attends the black-tie affair in a bathing suit, some people just might change their “I can’t” to “I can!” But, obviously, the “I can’t touch the sun” will not change even if someone is offering twenty million dollars.
When Bilaam told Balak that he couldn’t transgress the word of G-d, Balak understood him to mean that if he gets offered enough money, the “I can’t” will change to an “I can.” He obviously got frustrated when he realized that when Bilaam said “I can’t,” he meant that he was truly incapable due to G-d’s opposition. Indeed, Bilaam did not need a large check from Balak to motivate him to curse the Jews. He hated the Jews no less than Balak, and wanted them gone. But Bilam understood that transgressing G-d’s will was just like jumping up to touch the sun
Dr. J, the basketball player who invented the slam dunk, was asked, “Do you think it is possible that you can jump up and touch the top of the backboard as well?” His response was: “Put a twenty dollar bill up there and we will all find out!”
If the discussion above rang any bells with you, may I suggest that you take a few minutes to do the following short exercise? I myself have found it very useful:
Jot down all the things in life about which you say: “I can’t.” And then ask yourself which of the two definitions of the word impossible below is closer to your way of thinking:
1) An action that was never done by anyone, and will never be done by anyone.
2) An action so strongly regulated by your value system that no other value in the world can influence your perception of it.
The difference between the two, of course, is that the second definition may be subject to change for most people. Not for a Rav Moshe – whose supreme value was not to transgress any of G-d’s laws and to recognize G-d wherever he is.
If we muster enough constancy and dedication, what we sometimes consider to be impossible or out of our range may actually prove to be achievable. This insight can open up new vistas for us all.