Pirkei Avot 5: 19: Disciple of Abraham? Or Bil’am?

ל מִי שֶׁיֶּשׁ בּוֹ שְׁלֹשָׁה דְבָרִים הַלָּלוּ, הוּא מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִֽינוּ, וּשְׁלֹשָׁה דְבָרִים אֲחֵרִים, הוּא מִתַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע. תַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִֽינוּ: עַֽיִן טוֹבָה, וְרֽוּחַ נְמוּכָה, וְנֶֽפֶשׁ שְׁפָלָה. תַּלְמִידָיו שֶׁל בִּלְעָם הָרָשָׁע: עַֽיִן רָעָה, וְרֽוּחַ גְּבוֹהָה, וְנֶֽפֶשׁ רְחָבָה.

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 Balaam. The disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit, and a humble soul. The disciples of the wicked Balaam have an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a coarse soul.

(Pirkei Avot 5:19)

Bil’am is the snake of the impure husk.[1] This mishnah refers to three traits: ayin (eye), ruach (spirit) and nefesh (soul). The final letters of these three words in Hebrew spell out nachash (snake or sorcery). Bilam went after sorcery and was forced to admit that “There is no sorcery in Jacob.”[2] Abraham is the Mashiach, the same numerical value as nachash, the holy snake.

Rashi explains that “a good eye” means that a person is not envious of his fellow and that his fellow’s honor is pleasant to him as his own honor. A meek spirit means a person is humble and willing to kneel before others. A humble soul means that a person is willing to lower himself before others, has good relationships with others and is not coarse of spirit. The evil Bil’am, on the other hand, had an evil eye, (as is written “And Bil’am raised his eyes”[3] ) a haughty spirit (as is written “God refuses to let me go with you”[4]) and a coarse soul (as is written “If Balak will give me his entire house filled with silver and gold”[5]).

An evil eye is envy, a haughty spirit is expressed in arrogance and pursuit of honor and a coarse soul is lust. According to this, the three evil attributes of Bil’am are the same as the mishnah in chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot: “Envy, lust and honor drive a man from the world.”[6] In our mishnah, the order is changed: envy, honor, lust.

These three traits parallel the three primary faculties of the soul: Intelligence, Emotion and Behavior. Honor, a haughty spirit as opposed to a lowly spirit parallels the rectification of the faculties of intelligence – (wisdom, understanding and knowledge). Arrogance is a blemish in the faculties of intelligence. The numerical value of ga’avah (arrogance) is 15, yud hei, which represents wisdom and understanding, respectively. Lust, a haughty spirit as opposed to a lowly spirit parallels the rectification of the emotional faculties (lovingkindness, might and beauty). Envy, an evil eye instead of a benevolent eye parallels the rectification of the behavioral faculties (victory, acknowledgement and foundation). It is a dark urge of envy that brings about evil deeds. Indeed, the root of the behavioral faculties is in the crown. Thus, everything begins with an evil eye or a benevolent eye, which is the order in our mishnah. It begins with the rectification of the eye (crown and the behavioral faculties), continues to the rectification of the spirit (the intellectual faculties) and from there to the rectification of the soul (the emotional faculties).

The expression “disciples of” appears in another place in Pirkei Avot: “Be of the disciples of Aaron”[7]. Thus we have one negative archetype and two positive archetypes. This follows the archetypical order of any process: chash-mal-mal: Submission, separation and sweetening. We must silence the husk of Bil’am into submission (chash) and take care not to be his disciple. Abraham forged the covenant of separation (brit milah – mal) and Aaron the High Priest is the sweetener, the second mal; he “loves peace and pursues peace, loves the creations and brings them close to Torah.”

[1] In Hebrew, ayin ruach nefesh (eye spirit soul) is a mathematical series of increasing numbers, the base of which is Balak, 132.

[2] Numbers 23:23.

[3] Numbers 24:2.

[4] Numbers 22:13.

[5] Numbers 22:18.

[6] Pirkei Avot 4:21.

[7] Pirkei Avot 1:12.

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