Chazal (Avos 5:19) teach that if a person has a good eye and a humble spirit and soul, he is a student of Avrohom Avinu. If he has a bad eye, an arrogant spirit and a haughty soul, he is a student of Bilam. What is the difference? The student of Avrohom enjoys this world and reaps the rewards of the next world. The student of Bilam falls into a deep pit and ends up in purgatory.
A person with good character traits is referred to as a student of Avrohom, because to achieve that status, he had to have worked on himself to achieve perfection. Nobody is born great. Achieving greatness requires a lifetime of work and dedication. To maintain the energy and will to engage in steady self-improvement, a person must be suffused with faith. A person who believes that all that happens to him and to the world is from Hashem can maintain “a good eye,” looking at others kindly and without jealousy and disdain. Such a person does not become consumed with hatred and bitterness. He is able to enjoy this world. It can be safely assumed that a person who is guided by faith, emunah and bitachon lives his life in a way that will merit him much eternal reward.
All About Himself
A person who is arrogant is caught up with himself. He only cares about other people if he can derive some sort of benefit from them for himself. His is neither giving nor caring. It’s all about him and his whims. His need for gratuitous pleasure can never be fulfilled, for as soon as he satisfies one, he is onto the next object of his self-gratification. His life becomes an endless cycle of chasing indulgences. He enters a vortex from which there is no exit, leading him to eternal punishment.
Such a person is a student of Bilam. Blessed with great abilities, the evil master squandered his potential for greatness. He was so desirous of honor and money that instead of using his talents wisely and for blessings, he chased after promises of jewels and honor. His need for recognition and money led him to pursue wanton missions, doomed to failure from the outset. Instead of hewing to the proper path, which would have ultimately earned him the respect he so coveted, his life was full of disappointment and he is eternally remembered with much derision.
A person who is arrogant and selfish negates the mitzvos of Hashem that flatten the evil desires of a temptatious heart, but a person who embraces Torah adapts man’s innate demand for pursuits to propel him to increasing Torah knowledge, higher levels of holiness, and perfecting his character.
Bilam’s power was concentrated in his mouth. He was able to use it to bless people or to curse them. He was able to fashion clever slogans and present himself as a unifying figure of love and compassion, while he sought to sow hate and destruction. His poetic words of blessing belied his true intentions, which led to a plague among the Jewish people. Although he was smart enough to know the truth, his wicked character prevented him from blessing and following the good. He had to curse and seek devastation.
A Blessed People
The Torah tells us that Bolok grew increasingly frustrated with Bilam and thought that if he would bring Bilam to view the objects of his derision from a different vantage point, the poetry emanating from his mouth would be words of censure, not blessing. Instead, the posuk (24:2) relates that Bilam raised his eyes and saw Klal Yisroel and its tribes as they camped, and the spirit of Hashem rested upon him. He uttered the immortal words of “Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov.”
Rashi (ibid.) quotes the Gemara (Bava Basra 60a) which states that as Bilam looked out at the Jewish people, he noticed that the openings of their homes did not face each other, so they would not see into each other’s abodes. After noticing that, he was unable to curse them. Seeing this caused him not to curse them.
Bilam recognized that he was lacking in his personal ethics and that he was a person with a shesum ayin, an afflicted eye. He knew that because he had an ayin ra’ah, he was jealous of other people, leading him to curse them for their success and achievement. When he saw that the tents did not face one another, he knew that they were people of ayin tovah who minded their own business and were not consumed with jealousy and envy. They were talmidim of Avrohom. He knew that they were a blessed people and added his own blessing.
The Shoemaker and the Mussar Movement
The movement to encourage people to devote time in the day to the study of improving personal ethics and conduct was led by Rav Yisroel Salanter in Lita. A story that changed the trajectory of his life was so devastating that he felt he had to give up what he was doing and launch what became known as “The Mussar Movement.”
This is what happened: There was a simple shoemaker who lived in a typical Litvishe shtetel. We will refer to him as Yankel. A simple, good soul, he was unlearned and unable to study much. He could barely daven or recite Tehillim. He barely eked out a living from his small shop in the local marketplace.
One day, he received a message that there was a letter for him at the post office, postmarked from the big city. He rushed over and asked the postal clerk to help him read the letter. As the clerk read on, the initial frown on Yankel’s face morphed into an ever-increasing smile. The letter informed him that his wealthy, childless uncle had passed away and left his entire fortune to his nephew, Yankel the shoemaker.
Yankel hurried home to inform his wife about their newfound wealth. He was overjoyed at the unexpected turn their life has just taken. Life would never be the same. His wife rejoiced with him as he shared the good news, but advised him to proceed with caution. “Yankel,” she said, “don’t just take the money and spend it on luxuries. If you do that, it will run out, and before you know it, you will be back to fixing shoes. Go to the big city to claim your inheritance, and when you return, we will speak to the local g’vir and seek his advice on a business to invest in.”
Like all wise men, Yankel followed his wife’s suggestion, and after much research and guidance, he settled on a reputable financier to invest the money for him. Within a short period of time, he was earning enough to be able to bid his shoe repair shop a final goodbye. He lived on his investment income and grew increasingly wealthy. After giving up his profession, he found himself bored and began to frequent the bais medrash, where he would pay young scholars to learn with him. First, they taught him to read, then to daven, and then to read Chumash. Eventually, he was learning Gemara. He felt good about himself as he steadily progressed.
Years passed. He hired expert melamdim to teach his sons and learn with them. They proved to be good students and earned fine reputations for themselves in the small town in which they lived. His upward trajectory, which included advancing in learning and doing very well financially, earned him growing respect amongst the townspeople.
One day, a shadchan proposed the rov’s daughter as a suitable match for Yankel’s son. The two sides agreed, and the town rejoiced with the news of the match between Yankel, the prominent baal habayis, and their revered rov.
The entire town celebrated, with one exception. Back in the day, when Yankel was poor and worked as a shoemaker, there was a blacksmith who operated a shop right next door to his. The two had been friendly and would sit on their stoops when business was slow, whiling away the hours in conversation.
In the years since then, the poor blacksmith was never able to accept the fact that his neighbor, the shoemaker, had risen to prominence, while he had remained a simple laborer, working long hours and struggling for every kopek. He would look on bitterly as Yankel would deliver a shiur or speak in learning with scholars. Every time he had to pass Yankel’s house, he crossed the street in spite. Jealousy gnawed at his soul and caused him to be bitter and angry.
Finally, it was the day of the wedding and the townspeople gathered to celebrate the momentous occasion. The chupah was a grand spectacle, as befitting the rov’s daughter. Yankel stood tall and proud, his face glowing with a surreal light. The glass was broken, shouts of mazel tov filled the air, and the music began to play.
Yankel closed his eyes tightly, as well-wishers gathered around him, and he thought about Hashem’s benevolence toward him. Here he was, a talmid chochom, a g’vir, and, to top it all off, a mechutan with the rov.
Yankel opened his eyes and prepared to joyously greet his guests. There was a crush of people around him, and at their head was his old friend, the blacksmith.
“Yankel!” he shouted above the music, loud enough for everyone to hear.
He reached under his coat and held up a pair of torn shoes for all to see. “Hey, Yankel, how much would you charge to fix these shoes for me?”
People looked on in horror. Yankel stood there, deflated and pale. The joy drained out of him. The bitter, vicious ploy had worked. The blacksmith had come at the most glorious moment of Yankel’s life and reminded him that he was essentially nothing more than a very lucky shoemaker.
The blacksmith’s cruel tactic was the talk of the evening. The next day, Yankel passed away of a broken heart.
The story spread like wildfire and was retold in horror across Lithuania. When Rav Yisroel Salanter heard what the cruel and callous blacksmith had done, he decided that a revolution which stressed teaching the importance of tikkun hamiddos was necessary. He took the task upon himself and the rest is history.
Rav Nota Zenwirth, one of Yerushalayim’s tzaddikim, would retell the story and offer his own insight. He would say, “Do you know why Rav Yisroel was shaken so badly by the story? No, it was not because of the bad middos of the blacksmith. It was because of the bad middos of Yankel, the baal simcha.”
He would explain: “Here was this accomplished man – learned, wealthy, blessed with nachas from his children – and yet the opinion of someone else, the nastiness of a small person, had the ability to affect him so badly that it literally killed him. He should have been able to ignore what the poor, sad person had done. ‘Why can’t you look at what you have and ignore him?’ That he wasn’t able to do so, and that no one expected him to, is what convinced Rav Yisroel of the necessity of the Mussar Movement.”
In life, we encounter talmidim of Bilam, who seek to harm and unnerve us. As talmidim and heirs of Avrohom, we have to bear within our hearts and souls enough love to be able to pity those who castigate us, while maintaining love for them. We have to possess the moral fortitude and strength of Avrohom Avinu to be able to appreciate what Hashem has given us and what we have achieved so that we don’t become undone when threatened and mocked.
All through our history, we have been vilified by people far inferior to us, heirs to the evil Bilam. Ever-present, they throw slogans at us as they seek to harm us. With faith and confidence, we must always conduct ourselves as worthy talmidim and heirs of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov. That way, we will merit their blessings of a good life and eternal reward.