Students of Abraham vs. Bilam

The Relative vs. the Absolute Life


Rabbi Israel Chait

Written by student



Rabbi Chait recently gave a brief Dvar Torah at a friend’s Bris Milah. I will recount his words as best as I can…


Ethics 5:19 teaches that we are to be as the students of Abraham, and not as the students of Bilam the wicked. This is quite obvious. It is equally obvious that we need not be admonished to “Be as the student of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, and not as the students of Hitler”, may his name be erased. But as this lesson is sourced in the Mishna, there must be a deeper lesson.

The Mishna isolates three character traits of Abraham’s students: a good eye, a lowly spirit, and a humble personality.

A good eye means that the person is as happy with his friend’s successes, as he is with his own. He is not “eyeing” his friend’s success with envy, thus the term “good eye”.

The second quality of Abraham’s students is a lowly spirit. This means that he is not full of himself. When discussing the fate of Sodom with God, Abraham said, “I am dust and ashes”. He was an extremely humble human being.

And the third quality is a humble personality: where he has no categories determining with whom he can and cannot associate…he sits with all men. (Rashi)

The students of Bilam were the exact opposite; they had an evil eye, as Bilam saw the Jews dwelling and was envious. They had a high spirit, as Bilam refused to go with Balak’s first servants: Bilam’s estimation of himself was quite high. And Bilam’s students also had no capacity to sit among others as equals, but possessed intolerance of mankind.

But what is the underlying message?



Relative vs. Absolute

What the Rabbis of the Talmud are teaching with this comparison is a deep idea: we are not to live a “relative” lifestyle, where all is measured by my comparative, or relative status. Rather, God desires that we live in the world of the “absolute”. There exists only one thing: true reality, i.e., all that God created and His intended values for man. Gods does not desire man to live in an imagined, competitive mode, where all I seek is a fantasized status…always comparing myself to others. [In this case, man becomes the object of life, and God is abandoned.] God seeks that man lives in line with truth, and this means that we abandon the relative lifestyle, and search for absolute truth: that which is truly real, what God intends for us, and that which offers the greatest joy. We cannot enjoy life if we live based on relative values, and seek gory in our minds. Our enjoyment is in increased knowledge of the Creator. The relative self must be abandoned, replaced by a yearning to know more and more of God’s absolute wisdom.

As I review Rabbi Chait’s words now, I cannot help but sense my deep joy and total fulfillment in the unparalleled Torah life with which Rabbi Chait has endowed me, and hundreds of others these past 30 years. No words can thank him for his dedicated and tireless decades of Torah, and personal interest in each of his students.

I thought into his Dvar Torah, and realized these three traits identify the three parties with whom we can associate: our friends, ourselves, and strangers. We are to share in our friends’ successes as if they are our own: a good eye. For God created him as He created me. We are to view ourselves realistically, as creations; thus, a lowly spirit. And we are to recognize that God’s will extends to all of mankind: a humble personality.

Rabbi Chait concluded: Living in accord with absolute reality is difficult. So difficult is it, that only with God’s help in the Messianic era, will our “hearts be circumcised”. (Deut. 30:6) God will assist us in this challenge. May the Messiah be ushered in soon, that we may live lives guided by absolute truths, and not relative matters.