Antimatter: Bilam, Moshe and Avraham

Mirror Images of Reality

Our world was created such that things contrast one another. One can know what something is by what it isn’t, by comparing and contrasting it with it’s opposite. Like good and evil, for example. Or, like Bilam and Moshe. Our sages see Bilam as standing in stark contrast to Moshe. They said, “Never again will there be a prophet like Moshe,” however, amongst the nations of the world there would be, and that was Bilam.

Moshe, the father of all prophets, was a man whose spiritual greatness and abilities was enveloped in the highest realms of kedusha, of sanctity. Bilam, by contrast, was known as a uniquely spiritual person and someone that was highly attuned to God’s Will, but his specialness was drawn from the depths to tumah.

At the same time, in Pirkei Avot, our sages also contrast Bilam with Avraham.

“Anyone that possess these three traits is a disciple of Avraham. And three opposite traits are those of the disciples of Bilam. A ‘good eye,’ a ‘humble spirit,’ and ‘modest desires,’ are the traits of Avraham. An ‘evil eye,’ an ‘inflated spirit,’ and ‘unbridled desires,’ are the traits of the disciples of the wicked Bilam.”

In this Mishna, the highlighted contrast is centered on character traits and modes of living. Avraham was generous, humble and modest. Bilam was self-centered, arrogant, and driven by money and all it could buy.

Why is it that our sages who contrasted the spirituality and prophetic status of Bilam and Moshe, in Pirkei Avot, contrast Bilam with Avraham?

Kedusha, Spirituality, and Middot

The answer to this question takes us to the inner world of genuine spirituality.

On the surface, looking at Moshe and Bilam, the distinction between the two was in the realm of ruchniyut; spirituality, prophecy, and awareness of God. One was rooted in kedusha, and the other in tumah. But why was that?

The underlying reason for their spiritual divergence was the difference in their middot, their character. It’s simply not possible to soar spiritually from a foundation of corrupt character. The two are fundamentally incompatible. Dark character inevitably pollutes spirituality. The difference between Bilam and Moshe was the inevitable manifestation of the difference between Bilam and Avraham.

From Earth to Heaven

Our sages tell us that when Moshe ascended to heaven to receive the Torah that the angels objected to the presence of a man in their lofty, spiritual realm. In response, God transformed the face of Moshe to the face of Avraham and said, “Shame on you for objecting to the presence of the man that so graciously hosted you in his tent.”

The message, it seems, is that Torah, and the quality of refined spirituality related to Torah, are predicated on midot tovot, on sterling character. Torah is ohr; the highest, most remarkable, pristine, and pure refraction of Hashem’s light. For this reason, the light of Torah requires a suitable vessel, a receptacle whose highest spiritual quality matches the light it needs to contain. Without such a vessel to hold the light, it’s at great risk of “falling” to a place of tumah and darkness.

In His Heart of Hearts

Bilam said, “May I die the death of those with integrity.” And, according to our sages, this indicated that— “This was Bilam’s way of expressing his jealousy of the Avot, the Forefathers.”

This tells us that Bilam well understood the underlying secret of Am Yisroel’s spirituality: It was what they inherited from their founding fathers; sterling character, integrity, honesty, kindness, and the pursuit of justice. These are the cornerstones of Jewish spirituality; a spirituality and relationship to Hashem that is planted in the soil of refined character, and that grows to remarkable heights of ruach ha’kodesh, prophecy and hashrat ha’Shechina.

Bilam said, “How goodly are your tents, Yacov.” About which our sages said: Bilam was expressing his admiration of Jewish modesty, because the openings to the tents of the Jewish Jewish people never faced one another.”

As we saw, one of Bilam’s defining traits was aiyn rah; he only saw the worst in people. Nonetheless he couldn’t help but being struck by the dignity of Jewish modesty. Deep down, Bilam knew the difference between beautifully refined character, and crass self-centeredness. In his heart of hearts, he knew kedusha, true Godliness, when he saw it.

Divine Protection

Let’s conclude by focusing on the central effort being waged in this parsha.

Unbeknownst to Am Yisroel, Balak and Bilam were conspiring to bring curses down upon them. Balak and Bilam were striving to bring down—physically and spiritually—the Jewish people. Behind the scenes however, while the nation knew nothing of the efforts to undermine them, God not only thwarted every effort made by Bilam and Balak, He drove a wedge of acrimony between the two and transformed their curses into blessings.

There is a very important point.

Yes, we pray to Hashem in our times of need. But Hashem is far more than an address to turn to in desperate times. He’s always there, but more, He’s always looking out for us, whether we realize it or not; whether we even realize there is a need or not. We have no idea how frequently Hashem removes obstacles from our path, or lurking threats, without us ever being aware of the love being showered upon us.

We are not the only ones worried about our lives, future, well-being, and success. God is too, and even more so. He loves us, cares for us, and sees us in a much larger context than we can ever grasp. And with that infinitely grand perspective, He is constantly guiding us, and the world around us, in ways that reflect the very best for us. Yes, clearly we must shoulder a great deal of effort and responsibility for our lives, but in truth, the vast majority of our load is carried by God.

God’s great compassion and love carry us, and we do what is in our hands, to do our part, as well. And as well as we can. But with out His ever-present love; a love deeper than we can imagine, a love we are rarely cognizant of …


Translated and adapted by Shimon Apisdorf

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