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It is within our reach to nurture the character traits of Abraham in our lives, and with it we will become happier people, more respected people, and our deeds will cause others to remember us for good.

By Rabbi Ari Enkin, Rabbinic Director, United with Israel

This week’s Torah portion is Balak (Numbers 22:2–25:9) and in it we read about the evil king of that name who hired the evil prophet Bilaam to curse the Jewish people.

In an unlikely exercise, the Talmud compares and contrasts Bilaam with our forefather Abraham. As it says: “Whoever has three particular character traits is counted among the students of Abraham and whoever has three other character traits is counted among the students of Bilaam. One who has a good eye, humility, and a gentle soul is a student of Abraham, while one who has an evil eye, arrogance, and greed is a student of Bilaam.” Let’s examine these character traits.

It is explained that a “good eye” refers to those who care for others while someone with an “evil eye” puts others down. Abraham was one who looked to bring others close to God. He cared for strangers, non-Jews, idolators, you name it. He was out to help everybody. He fed everyone who even accidentally passed by his tent. He had a “good eye” for everyone he met.

Bilaam was the opposite. He looked down on everyone he met and always thought “what’s in it for me?” Have you ever thought about this: Bilam was hired to curse the Jews so that they would fail miserably in the next war and that the Moabites would be victorious against them. Why didn’t Bilaam just bless the Moabites that they should be victorious over the Jews? Why did he have to curse the Jews? Why did he have to take the negative path? The “evil eye.”

The next comparison between Bilaam and Abraham is “humility vs. arrogance.” It is explained that humility refers to knowing one’s place, knowing one’s limitations, and knowing that all success is only with the help of God. Abraham was God’s ambassador on earth. Abraham would teach people about God and pray with them. He would show people how a life based on God and kindness was so much more meaningful than what they were used to.

Bilaam, however, thought he was a partner with God, if not God’s boss. He didn’t care what God wanted, he only cared about what he wanted. He didn’t care that God blessed the Jews, he wanted to use his power to curse the Jews. Humility vs. Arrogance.

And finally, “a gentle soul” (one of several possible translations from the Hebrew original) refers to one who is content with what he has (“happy with his lot”), and it is considered to be one of the finest character traits to have. Being happy with what we have certainly ensures that we will never come to violate the Tenth Commandment: Thou shalt not covet!

Abraham didn’t have it easy. He had a difficult childhood, having gone against the grain to preach monotheism. He was then forced to move from place to place, and even when in the “Promised Land” it was no Club Med vacation. Abraham had what we would consider to be insurmountable hardships. But Abraham, took it all in stride. He didn’t complain. He knew he was in God’s hands and therefore accepted anything and everything as it came.

Bilam, on the other hand, cared only about money. He was already fabulously wealthy but would stop at absolutely nothing in order to earn more money. Ethics, morals, God’s law, it didn’t matter…Bilaam was infamous for wanting money. That’s the greed of Bilaam.

It is noted, however, that there was one area in which Bilaam, and Abraham were similar. We are told that both of them “arose early in the morning and saddled his donkey.” (Genesis 22:3, Numbers 22:21). They both were eager to get on with their respective missions. Abraham to sacrifice his son as God commanded, and Bilaam, to curse the Jews as God had forbidden. Who was successful? Who do we know more about? Who is remembered for only good?

Both Abraham and Bilaam traveled on the road of life and forged their own paths. The difference is that Abraham took the Highway, and Bilaam took the lowway (ok, it’s corny, but you get the idea).

It is within our reach to nurture the character traits of Abraham in our lives, and with it we will become happier people, more respected people, and our deeds will cause others to remember us for good.

For more insights by Rabbi Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.



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