Friday, July 15, 2016
Balak 5631 First Ma'amar
Disciples of Avraham and Disciples of Bil'am
Chazal in a Mishna in Avos teach us that the disciples of Avraham Avinu are recognized by three character traits. They are generous, humble and live simply. The disciples of Bil’am the wicked have three opposite qualities, stinginess, arrogance, and greed. Bil’am’s students have poor character traits, to be sure. But one need not be a disciple of Bil’am to learn these traits. In fact, any fool can develop these bad character traits without learning from anyone. What exactly, then, do the disciples of Bil’am learn from him? Conversely, what do the disciples of Avraham Avinu learn from him?
The interesting thing about Bil’am is that he subordinates himself to God. For example, in response to Balak’s appeal that he curse the nation of Israel, he claims that even if Balak would give him his entire estate filled with silver and gold he cannot transgress the word of God. Yet, from this very response Chazal learn that Bil’am was greedy. Why do Chazal consider him to be so wicked? The Sfas Emes explains that Bil’am viewed himself as a very important person who does God’s will notwithstanding his own importance.
Bil’am used service to God for his own ends, to increase his own egotism. This idea is alluded to in the pasuk describing Bil’am, “... נֹפֵל וּגְלוּי עֵינַָיִם/… fallen and revealed to him.” (Bamidbar 24:4) True, he falls before God. But he does so only to achieve a higher level to feed his bloated ego. Bil’am teaches his students to use service to God to achieve personal goals.
The righteous, on the other hand, have a simple soul. They ask nothing for themselves. Their sole desire is to be close to God, the source of life. They want to be God’s tool in this world, like an axe in the hands of a wood chopper.
In fact, this is the only way to merit the next world. Chazal tell us that this world is a corridor leading to the next world which is compared to a hall. The corridor is the only path to the hall. The only way to get to the next world is through this one. This is because the next world is so completely holy and spiritual that it is beyond our comprehension. It is impossible for someone who is completely disconnected from anything spiritual to merit the next world. What must we do, then, to merit it? The Sfas Emes explains that by revealing holiness in this world we connect to holiness, to God’s life force. This connection enables us to experience the next world.
The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that this is the meaning of the second half of the mishnah quoted above. The second part of the mishnah states that the disciples of Avraham Avinu benefit (lit.אוֹכְלִין /eat) in this world and נוֹחְלִין/inherit in the next world. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that Chazal are not simply listing the rewards awaiting the disciples of Avraham Avinu. Rather they are teaching us about the relationship between this world and the next. Chazal alluded to this relationship by using the word nochlin for inherit instead of the more common יורשים. נוֹחְלִין/Inherit has the same root as the word נַחַל/stream. The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that benefiting from this world is not part of the reward. Rather, it is part of the work. Whenever we benefit from this world we must channel the stream of God’s life force into the activity. Chazal are telling us that we must inject some of the next world’s holiness into our activities in this world.
By revealing the hidden holiness inherent in this world, we will merit experiencing the hidden holiness of the next world. The mishnah brings proof from a pasuk in Mishlei (8:21), “לְהַנְחִיל אֹהֲבַי יֵשׁ וְאֹצְרֹתֵיהֶם אֲמַלֵּא/I have something to bequeath those who love me and I will fill their storehouses.” The next world is referred to as אַיִן/nothing because it is not tangible and it is beyond our comprehension. When we reveal hidden holiness in this world, we develop a connection to it. This connection allows us to see and experience the אַיִן/nothing of the next world as יֵשׁ/something.
This, then, is the teaching of Avraham Avinu. Once we view ourselves as agents of God and consider that God is the absolute and singular force giving life and existence to everything, then generosity, humility, and living simply, follow.
Bil’am teaches his students exactly the opposite. He teaches that we can and should gain personally even from subservience to God. Chazal in fact teach us that that any kindness the nations of the world did, they did for their own benefit. This is why the mishnah states that the students of Bil’am inherit gehinom. Gehinom represents God’s concealment, the opposite of the next world. By introducing evil into the good that they do, Bil’am’s disciples conceal even the Godliness that would otherwise have been revealed by their positive actions. They, thus, inherit the ultimate concealment of God.
May we merit being the disciples of Avraham Avinu. Amen!