In Parshas Balak we encounter the enigmatic case of the wicked prophet Balaam. The very idea of a wicked prophet raises obvious questions. Perhaps the most basic question is how can a person who speaks to God choose to act wickedly?
The key to this puzzle is found in the mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:19 or nearby) in which the Sages teach us:
כל מי שיש בידו שלשה דברים הללו מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו, ושלשה דברים אחרים מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.
עין טובה ורוח נמוכה ונפש שפלה – מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו.
עין רעה ורוח גבוה ונפש רחבה – מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.
Whoever has these three things is from the disciples of our father Abraham, and whoever has three other things is from the disciples of the wicked Balaam.
A good eye, a subdued spirit, and a modest personality – [such a person is] from the disciples of our father, Abraham.
A wicked eye, an uplifted spirit, and a greedy personality – [such a person is] from the disciples of the wicked Balaam.
The commentaries discuss the exact nature of each of these traits (and bring Scriptural examples of each in connection to Abraham and Balaam). The basic explanation of these three traits (and its opposite extreme) is as follows:
עין טובה – A Good Eye: This refers to the trait of הסתפקות – being satisfied with what one has. The opposite is the “wicked eye”, which is a jealousy of others and a desire to possess that which belongs to them. The full extent of the “good eye” – as defined by Rabbeinu Yonah – is generosity, i.e. the ability to give to others.
רוח נמוכה – A Subdued Spirit: This refers to humility. The opposite is the “uplifted spirit”, i.e. arrogance and pride.
נפש שפלה – A Modest Personality: This refers to the trait of self-control with regard to physical desires. The opposite is the “greedy personality” that constantly seeks to satisfy every desire.
The mishna continues:
מה בין תלמידיו של אברהם אבינו לתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע? תלמידיו של אברהם אבינו אוכלין בעולם הזה ונוחלין בעולם הבא, שנאמר, “להנחיל אוהבי יש ואוצרותיהם אמלא.” אבל תלמידיו של בלעם הרשע יורשין גיהנם ויורדין לבאר שחת, שנאמר, “ואתה אלהים תורידם לבאר שחת אנשי דמים ומרמה לא יחצו ימיהם ואני אבטח בך.”
What is the [ultimate] difference between the disciples of our father Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Balaam? The disciples of our father Abraham eat in this world and inherit the world to come, as it says (Proverbs 8:21), “To cause those that love Me to inherit substance [in the world to come], and I shall fill their storehouses [in this world].” But the disciples of the wicked Balaam inherit Gehinom and descend into the pit of destruction, as it says (Psalms 55:24), “But you, God, shall bring them down into the pit of destruction, men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days, and I shall trust in You.”
There is a great deal to discuss in this mishna, but we will focus on a very basic issue. Although the mishna is contrasting two groups of “disciples”, the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Balaam, it is not speaking of literal students of these men. Rather, a disciple is one who follows in the path of another. Thus, Abraham and Balaam represent two opposing schools of thought, each of which has followers.
Now, whenever we speak of opposing schools of thought, we are always speaking of two different approaches to the same subject matter. (Thus, we never speak of a debate between a school of thought in art and a school of thought in chemistry.) If there is a conflict between the school of Abraham and the school of Balaam, then both schools must be dealing with the same basic issues.
The Tiferes Yisrael (commentary on the Mishna by R’ Yisroel Lipschutz, d.1860) explains the nature of the two schools of thought:
[מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו] אפילו הוא עכו”ם, עכ”פ הוא מתלמידי אאע”ה שלימד לכל בני עולם דעת אלהים ומדות ישרות. ומה”ט לא נקט תנא תלמידי משרע”ה, דתלמידי משרע”ה צריכים לקיים כל התורה.
[One who possesses these three traits,] even if he is a gentile, is still from the disciples of our father, Abraham, for he taught all mankind the knowledge of God and upright character. It is for this reason that the mishna did not say, “the disciples of Moses, our teacher”, for the disciples of Moses must uphold the entire Torah.
Thus, the school of Abraham is one that is far broader than the conventional limits of “Judaism,” and applies to all mankind. It is the school that follows the basic teachings of Abraham, i.e. the knowledge of God (דעת אלהים) and upright character (מדות ישרות).
As is clear from Scripture, Balaam also fully recognized God as the Creator and All-Powerful Lord of the universe. Balaam also had דעת אלהים – the knowledge of God. However, while Balaam’s intellectual recognition of God was of an extraordinarily high level, he did not recognize the importance of מדות ישרות – upright character. To Balaam, and those who follow in his path, the knowledge of God is all that matters. Yet, not only is this insufficient, but, as the mishna states, the knowledge of God without upright character is literally the path to damnation.
This idea is expressed by R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Torah in this parsha (Numbers 22:8) (emphasis added):
We saw in Abraham’s time that, in the midst of a polytheistic world, there was still a Malchi Zedek, the priest of the highest god, who was the One and only God of the Abrahamites, how Job and his friends appeared as pure honourers of this One, so we see Balaam also considering himself and calling himself solely in service of this One.
Altogether, the monotheistic truth as opposed to the polytheistic error is not the special, and certainly not the whole, characteristic of Judaism. That is rather the monotheistic truth with the full realization of what it entails for human living, the identifying One God with one mode of life, by His revealed Law.
But Balaam’s monotheistic spiritual height appears morally muddled, far off from even that of Malchi Zedek, far from a Job and his friends. His high spiritual gifts bringing him near to God were subordinated to his egoism and placed themselves at the service of earthly potentates and mighty ones and their lowest desires.
This is a profoundly important lesson. A Jew can only function as a Jew, a disciple of Moses, if he is already functioning on the more basic level of a proper human being, a disciple of Abraham. While a proper human being must have knowledge of God, that is only the beginning. To be a true disciple of Abraham one must also have מדות ישרות – proper character traits. Otherwise, regardless of one’s apparent spiritual achievements, one is actually on the path to the pit of destruction.