The following is based on the Sefer MiMa’amakim, Rav Kook in Oros HaKodesh, the Sfas Emes and the Maharal in Derech Chayim. Feel free to print this out and read it over Shabbos Kodesh, just please not during Tefilos!
In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to Balak, King of Moav. Balak felt threatened by the presence of the Jewish people near his border, and so he brought the neighboring country of Midyan in for a brainstorming session and they decided to call upon Bila’am Ben B’or, a sorcerer, to curse – and thereby annihilate – the Jewish people.
In the Torah’s detailing of Bila’am’s journey to meet with Balak, Rashi and other commentators point out numerous allusions to Avraham Avinu’s experiences as he made his journey to sacrifice Yitzchak Avinu at the Akeidah. Why the repetitive comparisons? We are here to talk about Bila’am – not Avraham! Why do we need to highlight the association?
Chazal give us the answer to this question in Pirkei Avos (5:19). There the Mishna sets up an epic historical battle between Bila’am and Avraham. The Mishna states as follows: ‘Whosoever possesses these three qualities belongs to the disciples of Avraham Avinu: Ayin Tova - a benevolent eye, Ruach Nemucha - a humble spirit, and Nefesh Shfala - a meek soul. On the other hand, he who possesses the three opposite qualities; Ayin Ra’a an evil eye, Ruach Gvoha a proud spirit, and Nefesh Rechava - a haughty soul, he is of the disciples of Bila’am HaRasha. How do the disciples of Avraham differ from the disciples of Bila’am? The disciples of Avraham enjoy this world and inherit the World to Come, while the disciples of Bila’am go down to the pit of destruction.’
One simple question on the text: Chazal here claim that if one has these three bad character traits he becomes a disciple of Bila’am. Since when do I need someone to teach me bad traits?! For this I need a character as famous and dramatic as Bila’am HaRasha to teach me? Any immature and insensitive person can figure these traits out by themselves! We need to implement specifically Bila’am HaRasha to teach me this?
And similarly, there are many great Tzadikim from our generations, and yet in contrast to Bila’am HaRasha’s unique quality to be a teacher of Ayin Ra’a, Ruach Gvoha and Nefesh Rechava we need specifically Avraham Avinu to teach me the opposite? No one else could emulate these Midos?
In short – why do we need this precise pair to bring out these contrasting sides?
As we attempt to refine our sensitivity to the words of Chazal, we need to understand that everything they say is intrinsic – the connections that they make, the comparisons that they draw are all stemming from deep-rooted universal truths. Meaning, if Avraham Avinu is lined up against Bila’am HaRasha, and we see that whatever his attributes are – the other personifies the diametrically opposing side, it shows us that Avraham Avinu and Bila’am HaRasha are inherently polar opposites.
This Mishna is coming to illustrate the concept of “Zeh L’Umas Zeh Bara Elokim” – Hashem created the world in such a way that every force has a counterforce. Each pair involved in a Zeh-L’Umas-Zeh relationship are involved in an existential tug-of-war. There is a point over which these two opposing forces are trying to prove their supremacy. Furthermore, this central point of contention is by the nature of its very existence is the only common factor between the two sides. Applying this concept back to our Mishna will hopefully add clarity…
The point of conflict between Bila’am HaRasha and Avraham Avinu is that they emerge in history as diametrically opposing ‘Firsts’, and they started a historical battle that is yet to end.
We know that Bila’am HaRasha was a gentile prophet, but it goes a fascinating step further: The Torah HaKedosha at the end of Parshash VaYishlach tells us of eight evil Edomite Kings who ruled in succession of one another. This seemingly overlookable factoid is really of tremendous significance. Comes the Arizal and reveals to us that these eight kings play a central historical role: These kings were responsible for the supernal potential for evil manifesting in the world on a practical level. These weren’t just evil people – they were responsible for letting evil and impurity enter this realm of existence.
The first king mentioned in this list – meaning the leader, founder and ideological head of this group was a man named Bela Ben B’or. Sound familiar? It should: Because Bela Ben B’or was simply another way of referring to Bila’am Ben B’or.
This sets Bila’am HaRasha apart in a big way; he’s no longer just a non-Jewish prophet. Now we see him for what he truly is: On the historical scale, he is nothing less dramatic than the foremost and fundamental challenger to holiness in this world. He is the embodiment of Kilkul – spiritual destruction
On this level he stands diametrically apposed to Avraham Avinu. The role of the first of our forefathers is not difficult to explain. Avraham Avinu came down to this world in order to found a nation whose entire essence is to reveal holiness in the world. It was he who instituted this movement toward the discovery and revelation of godliness. Avraham is the force of Tikun – rectification.
It is the purpose of Am Yisrael to make the world a deeper, more meaningful, holier – and thereby automatically – better place. And it is Avraham Avinu who stands as its ideological originator.
But how do we do this? What is required of us to pull off the remarkable feat of transforming the world into a sanctified dwelling space? This starts with our Midos – our character traits.
We are forced to say that Midos of Avraham Avinu: Ayin Tova - a good eye, Ruach Nemucha - a humble spirit, and Nefesh Shfala - a meek soul are the keys, the tools that we need to refine and implement in order to fulfill our universal task of Divine Revelation. And we can even say one step further – it’s not the character traits that make me an ideological disciple of Avraham Avinu, that’s not what he is teaching me. I become a student of Avraham because he’s teaching me my purpose in this world. He’s teaching me how to bring about spiritual rectification to the expanse of creation. The only way to accomplish this is through the implementation of these Midos. When do so I will automatically connect myself to, become a student of, be a part of his historical mission.
And so, Ayin Ra’a an evil eye, Ruach Gvoha a proud spirit, and Nefesh Rechava - a haughty soul; the tell-tale signs that one is a disciple of Bila’am HaRasha; must be tools needed to make a the world a less spiritual, less holy, less God-conscious place. And the same holds true here – it’s not the Midos that make me a Talmid, a student, of Bila’am HaRasha – rather it’s self-attachment to the furtherance of Bila’am’s goals that makes him part of the club. This ideological association is revealed by the manifestation of his qualities
Chazal define Bila’am HaRasha’s Midos as such: Ayin Ra’a – Resentfulness. Jealousy. The distaste for the good fortune of others. The thrill of watching something break. Ruach Gvoha – Pumped-up ego. Self-centeredness. The inability to function within a group. The furtherance of ‘self’ being the highest cause. Nefesh Rechava – Insatiability. And endless hunger for more and more physical pleasure. Lust and greed.
When a person gets caught up in these qualities he furthers Bila’am HaRasha’s goal. He creates disconnection and dissonance between the creations of the universe. He trains himself to be shallow. He disallows himself from connecting to the Divine.
Conversely; they define Avraham Avinu’s traits in the following way: Ayin Tova - Benevolence. My deep-rooted desire to complete that which is lacking and to fix that which is broken. My internal drive to make things right. Ruach Nemucha – Humility. Having the proper perspective that there is a greater goal, the wisdom as well as sensitivity to see myself as part of a bigger plan. Nefesh Shfala – Not living with an overdependence on the physical. Being satisfied with my lot.
These qualities facilitate Avraham Avinu’s ideology to come to fruition. Inasmuch as I myself as a vessel for holiness, a conduit for sensitivity, I can make the world a deeper, more meaningful place. A feeling of being settled without a constant nag to be shiny and shallow. An internal drive to see that my surroundings are always getting a little bit better. A kind word. Picking up a piece of trash. It is these qualities that the students Avraham Avinu put into practice in order to complete his – and their – task over the course of history.
The comparison between Bila’am HaRasha to Avraham Avinu allows me to take an assessment of which side I am on. Am I on the side of Tikun or Kilkul? Am I here to associate with Bila’am or Avraham? What do I want the world to look like?
HaKadosh Baruch Hu should give us the strength to fulfill our destiny and attach ourselves to Avraham Avinu’s vision of the world. We should be given the constant flow of inspiration and strength to polish and reveal our elements of Ayin Tova, Ruach Nemucha and Nefesh Shfala so that we can bring about the ultimate purpose of the universe: To make a beautiful, pure and holy world. A world that is receptive to Ratzon Hashem. If we can do this, there is no doubt that we will live lives of Simcha and Shleimus moving closer to HaKadosh Baruch Hu and ultimately the Geulah Sheleimah!