3 Traits of Perfected People
Rabbi Israel Chait
Transcribed by a student
WHOMEVER POSSESSES THESE 3 THINGS, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER; AND [WHOMEVER POSSESSES] 3 OTHER THINGS, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED. A GOOD EYE, A HUMBLE SPIRIT AND A MODERATE APPETITE, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER. AN EVIL EYE, A HAUGHTY SPIRIT AND A LIMITLESS APPETITE, HE IS OF THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED. WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER, AND THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED? THE DISCIPLES OF ABRAHAM, OUR FATHER, ENJOY THIS WORLD, AND INHERIT THE WORLD TO COME, AS IT IS SAID: “I WILL ENDOW THOSE WHO LOVE ME WITH SUBSTANCE, I WILL FILL THEIR TREASURIES” (PROVERBS 8:21). BUT THE DISCIPLES OF BILAM, THE WICKED, INHERIT GEHENOM, AND DESCEND INTO THE NETHERMOST PIT, AS IT IS SAID: “FOR YOU, O GOD, WILL BRING THEM DOWN TO THE NETHERMOST PIT, THOSE MURDEROUS AND TREACHEROUS MEN; THEY SHALL NOT LIVE OUT HALF THEIR DAYS; BUT I TRUST IN YOU” (PSALMS 55:24).
Did Bilam the wicked [really] have students? Why did the mishnah frame it in this way [comparing one group of students to others, as opposed to simply identifying good and bad values]? Maimonides comments:
Regarding Abraham, a good eye refers to satisfaction [Abraham was satisfied with his possessions]. A moderate appetite refers to caution in avoiding lusts. And a humble spirit refers to [excessive] humility. The opposite character traits are an energetic pursuit of wealth referred to as an evil eye, a limitless appetite [insatiable desires] and a haughty spirit. Students of Abraham attain this designation as they follow Abraham’s attributes. And whomever possesses the negative traits belongs to the students of Bilam. And I will site the verses describing Abraham’s attributes and Bilam’s flawed character.
Abraham’s satisfaction is seen when the king of Sodom wished to reward Abraham for returning the captives and their positions. But Abraham said he would not take anything from the king, even a shoestring. And this is the height of satisfaction and that is that man abandons much wealth and refuses to benefit even in a minute amount.
Abraham had reason not to accept a reward from the king of Sodom:
But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours so you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’” (Gen. 14:22,23)
God told Abraham that he would make him great. And if Abraham’s greatness could be attributed to the king of Sodom, it would reduce the sanctification of God’s name [through Abraham’s success achieved exclusively through God and no other]. Abraham realized what happens to him [now] is no longer a phenomenon in the capacity of Abraham as an individual, which was his capacity until now in Ur Casdim. There, Abraham had no responsibility other than to himself. That is where Abraham developed his ideas about Judaism. He saw through the fallacy of idolatry to the nth degree and it is where he began teaching and developed a following. But when God appeared to Abraham at the age of 75 and told him “Leave your land, your birth place and the house of your father” (Gen. 12:1), that meant that God removed Abraham from living as a private individual to become an entity who will build a structure [the Jewish nation] that will benefit the world. If anyone would taint this role, it would be destructive. Taking money from the king of Sodom would reduce his role. The world must view Abraham as one whom God—and no other—made successful. Thus, it was a political reason that Abraham refused gifts from the king.
Maimonides says that for a person [Abraham] to refuse such wealth, he must possess the trait of satisfaction. Meaning, a normal person could not refuse those gifts. This is because a person by nature has an insatiable desire for wealth. Even for political motivation, a person could not walk away from a fortune unless he possesses this trait of satisfaction. Such a person is not excited over wealth; he is satisfied financially and needs no more. Most people feel that if they have a certain amount of wealth, that they would be satisfied and not seek anything more. But in truth, one’s desire for wealth is the energy of the psyche directed towards an ultimate fantasy which one seeks to attain from wealth. One who is under the sway of that fantasy cannot refuse gifts. An imperfect person will cave in to his desires even if there are reasons not to cave in [such as political reasons as in Abraham’s case]. A small person can never perform a great deed. It is impossible. If there were no reason to refuse the gift, Abraham would have accepted. Wealth has a purpose to help one function according to his needs, and anything additional should be used to sanctify God’s name. But in Abraham’s case, refusing the reward was the greatest use [it maintained sanctification of God’s name]. There was no difference in Abraham’s emotions whether he accepted the gift or not. He decided the proper response in each case, and when it was improper, he walked away. Maimonides continues:
Abraham’s removal from lusts is seen when he said this to Sarah the day they came to Egypt: “Behold I know that you are a beautiful woman” (Gen. 12:11). Chazal say that until that day, Abraham never looked at Sarah in a way of total evaluation of her beauty [but he did so on that day because he was concerned for her danger]. And this is the height of removal from the instinctual.
You see from Chazal that the relationships between the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs was qualitatively differentiated [from our own]. Abraham’s and Sarah’s relationship operated on a different basis, totally removed from the instinctual and physical aspects of love as we understand them. Also, when Abraham our father took Hagar, Rashi comments:
And Sarah the wife of Abraham took her maid Hagar the Egyptian at the end of 10 years: She took her with words, “Happy are you that you merit to cleave to a holy body as this” (Gen. 16:3).
This means that the relationship with Abraham was different than with any other human being. It was a different kind of conjugal relationship. Maimonides continues:
Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right” (Gen. 16:6). This teaches that Abraham had no desire to enjoy Hagar physically. And also, when Sarah demanded that Abraham chase out Hagar and Ishmael, and he would not be able to live with Hagar anymore, Torah says that Abraham was upset only about Ishmael: “The matter distressed Abraham greatly, concerning his son” (Gen. 21:11). These are demonstrations of a person who is removed from the physical, the instinctual.
Abraham was undisturbed in losing Hagar as a physical mate for he was completely removed from the area of physical desires. Maimonides continues:
And Abraham’s humility is seen when he said, “I am dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27).
Rabbeinu Yona comments:
Why did the author of this mishnah need to be so verbose here? It is because he wished to demonstrate what perfection consists of, namely the 3 matters: satisfaction, removal from the instinctual and humility.
Due to his love of money, Bilam traveled from Aram Naharayim to curse the Jews [in spite of the difficulties]. And based on his great desire for sex, Bilam gave advice to Balak that the women act promiscuously with Israel.
Bilam gave a brilliant counsel. The Jews succeed because they sublimate their energies into wisdom. Other nations remain in the world of lusts. After Bilam failed at cursing Jews he told Balak that he could destroy Jews by engaging them in the instinctual. That will be their end, and he was correct. Bilam was brilliant and understood very advanced psychological warfare. This is more advanced than biological warfare. Maimonides says that you learn that Bilam was very lustful:
For were it not for his abundant lust, Bilam never would have advised Balak to entice the Jews through the women. Because man’s advice is always in accord with his own thinking, for good people do not advise others on evil.
Why is this so? Perhaps Bilam was not a baal taiveh (lustful person) but he knew how to destroy the Jews. And he advised Balak due to his desire for the money [which Balak promised him for cursing the Jews]. It is a difficult question. Maimonides also says that Bilam cohabited with his donkey. This means that he was engaged in much sexual activity. This was his way of life.
Bilam was a highly organized and sophisticated individual. He did not simply follow every passing desire like an average person. Such people get nowhere and cannot become much of a rasha. A true rasha requires organization. Bilam had a philosophy: the good in life is wealth, honor, physical enjoyments and sexual pleasure. And a person must use his mind to attain these matters. Bilam was very successful in doing so. These sound familiar in American society.
“Students” of Bilam the rasha mean that Bilam represented a “way of life” [a path that could be studied, but not indicating such a path is correct]. However, the components don’t equal the whole. For example, one person can chase wealth, but this does not necessitate a philosophy of his life; perhaps he chases wealth as he is insecure, and he has emotional problems. In one sense he is better than Bilam because he does not espouse a philosophy of lust. But in another sense, he is worse because it is a weakness in his soul; he has no control over his emotions. You hear proverbial stories of people dying with a fortune under their mattresses, yet they lived like paupers. These people had a desire for money, but they were not Bilam. They had a neurosis, but they don’t reflect a philosophy of life. The same applies to following desires. But when one spans the gamut and one is involved in wealth, physical pleasures and honor, these are not just weak emotions, which [by design] do not set themselves up in all areas. Rather, this type of personality lives with a philosophy of life. That was Bilam.
Now, if Bilam only had a weakness for money, then in general he would have been a good person and would not have had a drive for the instinctual. But Maimonides says that if that were the case, Bilam could never had advised Balak to cause others [the Jews] to engage in sexual promiscuity since “good people do not advise others on evil.” It is psychologically impossible for a good person to destroy another person by offering destructive advice, as Bilam had advised Balak. Maimonides means that a good person never destroys a another on a spiritual plane. For example, a person will not say, “I will destroy that person by preventing him from praying.” This is because once a person values the good, he cannot cause others to lose it. Again, a person cannot destroy his enemy by preventing the enemy’s acts of kindness so he might inherit gehenom. A person can only try to destroy another in an area dealing with earthly existence: he’ll take his money and hurt him physically. But he cannot destroy others spiritually by removing from them a spiritual good. This is humanly impossible; no one would want to do such a thing. There is no satisfaction in such an act. If one is convinced that promiscuity is evil, and there is a higher benefit in life, he will not destroy another person with destructive advice. On the contrary, it will bother him to do so. When others try to stop us from Torah study [or living a Jewish life] it is not because they know what Torah is. Rather, they wish to strip us of an earthly superiority.
People’s identification with others prevents them from destroying them spiritually. But the fact that Bilam had advised Balak in sexual promiscuity displayed that Bilam viewed promiscuity as a good, but only when it is under control. But Bilam felt the Jews will lose control and he will harm them. Bilam wished to destroy the Jews. But had Bilam felt that there was a higher good and that promiscuity was evil, he could not cause the Jews to indulge; it would disturb him.
Bilam hated the Jews because they represented the truth and because the Jews’ existence conflicted with his whole way of life. That is Sinai. [Proof of God through revelation at Sinai and His selection of the Jews generates a jealous hatred in others].
A person can destroy another materialistically. For by removing materialism from another, one makes more materialism available to himself.
Why did Bilam receive prophecy? It was for the sake of the Jews. Like Lavan, Bilam never received prophecy because he intrinsically deserved it. He was a rasha. He did not have the proper prerequisite character to deserve prophecy. But he did possess intellect. He was the only case of a prophet who possessed intellect without perfection of character. He received prophecy because of a certain situation that befell the Jewish nation. The term “vayikar” is used in connection with Bilam indicating that he did not deserve prophecy. [Vayikar indicates an accidental relationship. God accidentally or not essentially spoke with Bilam, indicating that intrinsically he did not deserve prophecy.] Bilam had a brilliant mind and when he was under prophetic influence, he saw true ideas. But the moment the influence of prophecy left him, he reverted back to his original state. This is because a person cannot be perfected by anything other than himself. Even if God gave him prophecy and he gained momentary perfection due to prophetic influence, when prophecy ceases, he reverts back to his evil self. That is the case of Bilam.
Chronicles calls Bilam a kosame, a soothsayer. This means that through his intelligence he caused people to believe that he could curse others. His curses affected others psychologically in a way that destroyed them; they believed that they were cursed. [But to believe that curses are effective in the mystical sense is false and idolatrous]. That is why God prevented Bilam from cursing the Jews; at that time, he could have destroyed them in this psychological manner (Ibn Ezra).
This is why our mishnah phrases this matter as “students” of Bilam and “students” of Abraham; both used intellect. Bilam and Abraham were powerful people with powerful minds. They were influential individuals. Bilam stood before kings. The mishnah tells us that with wisdom alone without proper character, one can be as far from perfection as east is from west. Perfection is attained only through a difficult struggle with the self where a person—inch by inch—makes advances and moves his nature to come in line with his perception of perfection. But if perfection is suddenly given to a person, even though he has the greatest intellect, he will lose it. For as long as knowledge [and proper character] is not part of one’s nature, it is an alien entity and cannot possibly perfect him. [The perfected state Bilam experienced under prophecy could not endure once the prophecy ended because of his corrupt nature.]