This week’s Torah portion is about Balaam, the non-Jewish prophet hired to destroy the Jewish people. The ancient nations of the world complained to the Almighty that if He would give them a prophet like Moses, they too would be able to lead spiritual lives. G-d responded by granting prophecy to Balaam. Instead of using it to increase peace and goodness in the world, he ultimately used it for destruction. In addition, his gift of prophecy didn’t stop him from being a morally corrupt person to the point that he even used his donkey to fulfill his sexual desires. How could someone to whom the Almighty granted such a huge spiritual gift-prophesy-be such a lowlife? On the other extreme, we find that Abraham, who grew up in the home of idolatry, ultimately became the teacher of ethical monotheism, the source of the world’s three main religions. Here’s the comparison that ancient Jewish wisdom makes concerning Abraham and Balaam.
Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the students of our father Abraham, and whoever possesses three different traits is of the students of the wicked Balaam. Those who have a good eye, humble spirit and an undemanding soul are the students of our father Abraham. Those who have an evil eye, arrogant spirit and a greedy soul are the students of the wicked Balaam. (Pirkei Avot 5:22)
Let’s look into the personality of Balaam. Even though had been granted the gift of prophecy and must have understood the great spiritual forces regulating the cosmos, his life was devoted to the coarsest physical pleasures. He even used his spiritual abilities for personal advantage by hiring himself to curse people. How can we understand the quote above in which Abraham and Balaam are compared? Granted, Abraham was great and Balaam wicked, but there must be some common denominator between the two; some connection that has a lesson to teach us.
What is Judaism’s answer to how to deal with evil (e.g. Balaam )? Be like Abraham. How did Abraham become who he was? Was he descended from angels, great kings or wise sages? To the contrary, his father, Terach was an idolater — so committed to its worship that he turned over his own son to the authorities for practicing and preaching monotheism. Considering this, who taught Abraham about G-d?
He must have figured it out by himself. He saw harmony and beauty in the world and recognized that there must be a greater Force which created and orchestrated it all. There was something very healthy about Abraham’s recognition of G-d: he worked his way up to it. He saw the beauty and harmony of the physical world and was able to discern from it the even greater beauty and harmony of the spiritual worlds. He recognized the precision of the rising and setting of the sun and moon; he saw how much children look like their parents; were all these phenomena coincidences or random occurrences? He noticed that when it rained, millions of gallons of water descend on the earth but instead of a torrential downpour, harmless drops of water hit the earth’s soil. If a person went to the roof of a tall building and dropped hundreds of gallons of water at the same time, they would come gushing down in a torrent, not in harmless drops, yet when it rains, millions of gallons of water reach the earth in a pleasant manner. Abraham came not only to revere G-d and nature; the entire universe is magnificent and a part of G-d’s handiwork. All of creation was sacred for Abraham; its beauty attested to G-d’s existence, and its existence bespoke a role in G-d’s Master Plan.
Abraham was not only famous for his belief in G-d but for something else as well — hospitality. If G-d is sacred, then human beings, formed in G-d’s image, are sacred too — and must be treated as such.
Balaam, with all his prophetic powers, was the antithesis of Abraham. Balaam saw G-d before him but never built up to such an encounter; prophecy was a gift for him, not something he needed to work hard to acquire.
True students of Abraham know that one does not have to be a hermit or ascetic to live the spiritual life. Everything in creation has purpose and every human drive can be harnessed in Divine service. If G-d created it, it is inherently beautiful and valuable. Far from ignoring the world as a distraction from spiritual pursuits, our task is to appreciate the universe and use it to get closer to the Almighty.
The lesson for us is an important one — and one we unfortunately often overlook. There are no shortcuts to self-growth and spirituality. Attending a Kabbalah class to fathom the unfathomable is futile because even though the ideas are lofty, if one isn’t doing any mitzvos, being kind, giving of one’s time and resources, as well as learning the basics of being Jewish and having pride in it, then one isn’t on the well-trodden path paved for us by Abraham.
Spirituality goes with giving tzeduka, feeding people, teaching them, and building a community of people devoted to these ideals. In addition to all of the above, it means devoting your life to something bigger than yourself. Abraham became the first Jew because he was the paradigm for these traits. When we are good, decent, hardworking people who are kind and faithful, then our actions testify that we stand for something greater than ourselves and our vested interests-only then can we truly be ready for healthy spiritual growth; the kind taught to us by the first Jew, Abraham. We must never forget that we Jews are not only his decedents, we are his students as well.