Ethics Now and Then 94 – Avot 5:22

Pirkei Avot 5:22

Whoever has within him these three qualities, is of the disciples of Abraham our father; but [if he has] three ‘other’ qualities, he is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam. If one has a good eye, a humble temperament, and a lowly spirit, he is of the disciples of Abraham our father; if he has an evil eye, a haughty temperament, and an insatiable spirit, he is of the disciples of Balaam the wicked. The disciples of Abraham our father eat [enjoy the fruits of their virtue] in this world and inherit the world-to-come; for it is stated, “There is inheritance enough to bestow upon My friends, and their treasuries I will fill.” But the disciples of Balaam the wicked inherit Gehinnom and descend into the pit of destruction; for it is stated, “And Thou, O God, will bring them down into the pit of destruction; men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in Thee.” *

 

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Whoever has within him these three qualities, is of the disciples of Abraham our father; but [if he has] three ‘other’ qualities, he is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam.

The previous three verses in Avot refer to the righteous qualities of unselfish, unconditional love, of ensuring that one’s communication and conversations are “for the sake of Heaven” and of encouraging others to grow spiritually and to do good.  It is not surprising that this next verse refers to our father Abraham, for these qualities describe him well. On the other hand, the opposite traits of selfishness, communication that is against Heaven, and leading others to evil, epitomize the wicked prophet Balaam.

Both men were wealthy and respected in their individual capacities, and each was recognized as one who had extraordinary communication with Heaven. The mishnah, or verse, indicates that, apart from their personal characteristics, what distinguishes the two is the qualities, or ‘fruit’, found in the lives of their disciples.

If one has a good eye, a humble temperament, and a lowly spirit, he is of the disciples of Abraham our father…

In Avot 2:23, the sages describe a “good eye”  as meaning a generous nature. One with a ‘good eye’ gives liberally, is not jealous of another’s success nor envious of another’s possessions. He is content with his lot in life. A “bad eye” indicates the opposite and means one who has a greedy, envious and insatiable nature.

Abraham was noted for his generous hospitality. He also evidenced a humble temperament, nefesh shefalah, in that he had restraint and self control. He did not desire or lust after excess luxury and wealth but was satisfied with whatever God provided. The third quality, a “lowly spirit” – ruach nemucha, indicates that he was modest and did not desire or demand status and power

… if he has an evil eye, a haughty temperament, and an insatiable spirit, he is of the disciples of Balaam the wicked. 

Balaam was known as a powerful prophet in the region of Ammon and Moab. His words, when first he attempted to curse Israel but instead spoke forth blessing, are still the first words of prayer uttered at the start of the morning service in synagogues:
“How goodly are your tents , O Jacob; your dwellling places, O Israel.” ** 

Balak, the king of Moab, had called on him in order to come to Moab and to curse the Israelites who were encamped on his border. God at once told him not to go. Still Balaam persisted, even after an angel blocked his way and his own donkey reprimanded him!

The question is: Why would Balaam want to curse a people he had no familiarity with? Avoth d’Rabbi Nathan (B45) offers a motive. “As long as the Israelites had not left Egypt the various nations would consult him [as a seer]. Once they left Egypt, even a Hebrew serving-girl was wiser than he [having seen God’s miracles and encountered His Presence at Sinai]. So he began to cast a hostile evil eye on the people of Israel.” *** 
He saw the Israelites as a threat to his personal prestige and renown. His pride, “haughty temperament,” was injured. Perhaps they would affect his income – the wealth he accrued from those who sought his services. His reference, in discussion with Balak, too: “”If Balak should give me the fill of his house in silver and gold…” (Num.24:12-13), was a hint at where his true motivation lay.

Renowned Hassidic Rabbi, Nachman of Breslov, described the devotion to money as a false god: “Money worship, like idol worship stems from a lack of trust in God. The more it is uprooted, the more the world radiates with the blessing of the Holy One’s love.” ****

Our father Abraham radiated chesed, the loving kindness of God, which drew many to life in His Kingdom; while the greed of Balaam led to the downfall and death of many.

The disciples of Abraham our father eat [enjoy the fruits of their virtue] in this world and inherit the world-to-come; for it is stated, “There is inheritance enough to bestow upon My friends, and their treasuries I will fill.”  
But the disciples of Balaam the wicked inherit Gehinnom [Purgatory] and descend into the pit of destruction; for it is stated, “And Thou, O God, wilt bring them down into the pit of destruction; men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in Thee.”

In the Apostolic writings, too, Paul clearly proclaims the reality of reward and punishment: “For the wrath of God is revealed from Heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men…” (Romans 1:18)  “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:6-8).

We see that  those who walk in the ways of God, and emulate Abraham the first father of our faith, will inherit eternal life in the World to Come. The followers of Balaam, however, will inherit Gehinnom. The valley of Hinnom (Gei Hinnom) lies outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. In Canaanite times, children were sacrificed there to the idol Moloch. In later history it became a refuse dump, where fires burnt constantly. By association, then, it became known as Purgatory or Hell, where the wicked suffer in their after-life.

The mishnah also reminds us that those who follow God, as Abraham did, are called His friends and will enjoy the pleasant fruits of goodness in this world. He will provide all they need. Those who, with the characteristics of Balaam, proudly and greedily trust in their own strength, eventually will find they are living a “hell on earth.”

Interestingly, Rabbi Nachman, in his quote above, links the worship of money to lack of trust in God and anxiety about one’s future. When one does honest work and lives in accordance with God’s commands and instructions, and places one’s trust in His provision, we find ourselves in a place of experiencing His blessing and love. We then can wholeheartedly proclaim: “I will trust in Thee!”

 

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Footnotes:

* Psalm 55;24

** Numbers 24:5

*** Quoted by Irving J. Bunim, Ethics from Sinai, Vol. 3, p.203

**** ADVICE, p. 139; quted by WIlliam Berkson, Pirke Avot, p. 177

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