This weeks Parsha is Parshas Balak. In the Parsha we read the amazing story of Bilaam, and Balak, and their attempt to destroy the Jewish people. Balak, the King of Moav, engaged Bilaam, who was a great prophet, to curse the Jewish people. Our Sages teach us that the reason Balak went to Bilaam was that he felt that to overcome the Jews, whose power was in their speech, he needed someone who had power in their speech. Bilaam was renowned for his power to curse others with disastrous effects. However, this requires some explanation. How could it be that Bilaam could be a prophet, someone who communicated with Hashem, yet still be able to be so wicked? Wouldn’t we expect someone who has such great spiritual powers to be a righteous and good person?
In Ethics of the Fathers we are taught about the difference between the students of the wicked Bilaam, as opposed to the students of Abraham. “Whoever has a good eye (looks at others favorably), a humble spirit, and a meek soul (seeks little physical pleasure) is from the disciples of Abraham. Whoever has an evil eye (looks at others begrudgingly or with jealousy), an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are from the disciples of the evil Bilaam… At first glance this is very puzzling. If the Sages want to tell us the difference between the disciples of Abraham and of Bilaam, why do they have to talk about character strengths or flaws? Wouldn’t we expect them to talk about actions and deeds? Wouldn’t the simple difference be that the disciples of Abraham are putting on tefillin, studying, praying, and giving charity, while the disciples of Bilaam are doing all sorts of sins and immoral acts?
The story is told of a girl who asked her friend for a recipe. A short while later she came back to complain to her friend. “Why did you give me such a terrible recipe? The food I made with it tastes horrible!” Her friend was astounded. “I’ve used this recipe for ten years and it’s always tasted delicious!!” She went to see what her friend had done. After looking at her kitchen for just a couple of minutes she realized what the problem was. “Look, she exclaimed!! Your pot is filthy!! Of course the food that is made with a pot that is dirty will taste bad!”
This is the answer to both questions posed above. Certainly in understanding what spirituality is, and being a man of great wisdom, Bilaam was very great. However, the tremendous flaws that caused his terrible downfall were in his character traits. When the Sages want to show what is the source of his shortcomings, they point to flaws in his character. Even a person with the greatest knowledge and mind, can still fall short in areas of his character development.
This is the great challenge that we carry with us throughout life. We must try to constantly work on improving our character, and uprooting bad character traits. Our tendency to get angry, our temptations for physical pleasure, our feelings of jealousy… are all character traits that must be dealt with and corrected. The famed Rabbi Yisroel Salanter taught us that it is easier to study the entire Talmud than to change even one character trait. This is the lifelong job we have, little by little to improve and better our character, as we strive to be disciples of Abraham. As the saying goes, “Rome wasn’t built in one day”. We can’t expect our character traits to simply change overnight. However, if we try to improve, little by little, we certainly are assured that we will succeed!!