Judaism: Torah from Bnai Akiva: What Made Bilaam Tick?
Rabbi Ilan GoldmanThe writer is Central Shaliach (representative) for World Bnei Akiva and the Jewish Agency to the United Kingdom.
A Matter of Perception
The prophet of the nations - Bilaam, is one of the most fascinating characters in the bible. Though it is genuinely difficult for us to begin to understand the level and the greatness of the righteous people the bible talks about, we can, however, usually try to imagine ourselves in their shoes: e.g. how awesome it would be to receive prophesy and how tremendous it would be to see miracles.
However, there is one individual who stands out in the Torah as a puzzling character: Bilaam, a prophet as great as Moshe (according to the Midrash), who continuously stoops so low.
What is it that causes such an accomplished prophet to try and take advantage of his spiritual abilities in order to gain money, honour and to curse an entire nation? A Mishna in the Ethics of Our Fathers has an answer to this dilemma: “Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Bilaam. The disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Bilaam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit and a gross soul.” (Chapter 5).
These three characteristics of Bilaam are evident in the story itself. He is bribed by Balak through money and honour, thus showing that he has a haughty spirit (pride) and a gross soul (lust). The whole story is one of his evil eye, where he takes pleasure in attempting to cause the downfall of an entire nation; the Midrash teaches us that though he was begged to come and curse, he was actually longing for it. It seems that Bilaam fully qualifies for all three aspects of another Mishna: “Rabbi Elazar HaKapor would say: envy, lust and honour drive a man from the world.”
Bilaam’s evil eye is the interweaving principle of the story. It seems that it is this attitude which brings about the ability to see everything in such a negative way. Whatever he ‘meets’, he will break down according to his life philosophy - his evil eye. Abraham, the complete contrast to Bilaam, will see a city of wicked and seek to identify the righteous within it. Bilaam, will see a righteous nation, and strive to find its wicked points. Viewing the world with a bad eye can pull the world down and that is what he was, unsuccessfully, attempting to do. Viewing the world with a good eye has the ability to elevate it, as Abraham sought to do with Sodom and Gomorra.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov profoundly teaches this very principle: “know that you must judge all people favourably. This applies even to the worst of people. You must search until you find some little bit of good in them. In that good place inside them, they are not bad! If you can just find this little bit of good and judge them favourably, you really can elevate them and swing the scales of judgment in their favour. This way you can bring them back to God... Even if you consider someone to be totally bad, you must still search until you find some little bit of good in him... For in that place he is not a sinner. Maybe he’s a bad person. Even so, is it really possible that he is totally devoid of even the slightest scrap of good? ... By finding one tiny good point in which he is not bad and thereby judging him favourably, you really do raise him from being guilty to having merit. This will bring him back to God. “In just a little bit there’s no sinner!”
Rabbi Nachman is telling us to focus on the good, even if it is only a miniscule part of the whole. This in itself has the ability to redefine a situation or even a person, and elevate it. Perhaps the reason is because in essence the world is good, and even though there is a lot of evil in the world, our sages teach us that a good attribute is considered at least 500 times greater than a bad attribute. Therefore it is all a matter of perception. As Chassidut teaches us: ‘think positively – things will be good’.