“If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of Hashem to do anything small or great” (Bamidbar 22:18).
Pirkei Avos (5:19) states: Whoever has a good eye (i.e., does not begrudge his friend), a humble spirit, and a meek soul (i.e., is satisfied with whatever he’s blessed with) belongs to the disciples of Avraham. In contrast, whoever has an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul belongs to the disciples of the wicked Bilaam.
Avraham Avinu was a symbol of tzedakah, benevolence, and loving-kindness. Bilaam was the opposite – a symbol of evil, selfishness, and negativity.
It is noteworthy that in defining the difference between disciples of Avraham and Bilaam, our sages do not mention praying with kavanah or studying Torah diligently. Indeed, a person can excel in both these mitzvos – and many other mitzvos between man and G-d – yet still be considered a disciple of Bilaam if he begrudges others or has an arrogant spirit, for example.
We thus learn a very important lesson: A person is defined by his character traits. Good middos are what transform a person from a simple individual into an exalted personage. Negative character traits, in contrast, diminish an individual.
R’ Yisroel Salanter, the father of the mussar movement, stated that good middos are man’s treasure. Our time on this earth, therefore, would be well spent acquiring good middos and improving our character. Doing so will actually distinguish us from others. (There is a sefer, Shulchan Aruch L’Middos, that explains how to properly direct one’s character traits in the service of Hashem.)
R’ Yisroel Salanter noted that some people are very careful to observe rabbinic mitzvos – no Torah-observant Jew would ever consider eating bread without washing first – but do not take seriously a Torah prohibition like lashon hara. Such behavior is improper.
Bilaam’s downfall came about because of his arrogance. Avraham Avinu excelled because of his deep-rooted humility. He would do anything in the service of Hashem, and thought nothing of hosting three angels who appeared to be Arabs, personally ministering to their needs. Mishlei 16:5 states, “Every haughty heart is the abomination of Hashem,” and the Talmud (Sotah 5a) states similarly, “Hashem says: [An arrogant person] and I cannot live together in the world.”
Bilaam also possessed an evil eye. He saw the world in a negative light. Avraham Avinu, though, possessed a good eye and regarded the world in a positive light. Avraham Avinu saw the good in people and sought to better mankind. He did not covet what was not his and was satisfied with his lot. The Maharal comments that a person who has a good eye and good disposition will be blessed with a pleasant life and be rewarded in this world and the next.
R’ Yisroel Salanter, dressed as a simple person, was once sitting in the smoking car of a train by himself traveling from Kovno to Vilna. When R’ Yisroel began to smoke, a young man sitting nearby exclaimed loudly, “I cannot take the smoke!” Without reminding the young man that they were sitting in a smoking car, R’ Yisroel apologized and extinguished his cigarette.
A while later, the young man complained, “It is impossible for me to sit next to this old man. He opens up the window and everybody is freezing.” R’ Yisroel said, “Please forgive me. I did not open the window, but if it bothers you, I will certainly close it” – and he did.
As the train pulled into Vilna, the young man noticed a huge crowd assembled. When he inquired whom they were welcoming, he was told, “Our teacher, R’ Yisroel Salanter, has come to our city.”
Beset by guilt over his egregious disrespect for the tzaddik, the young man did not sleep all night. The next morning he immediately made his way to R’ Yisroel’s lodgings. R’ Yisroel greeted him, invited him to take a seat, and inquired after his welfare. The young man was astounded at the cordial welcome and broke down in tears, begging R’ Yisroel’s forgiveness for his rudeness the previous day.
R’ Yisroel assured him, “There is no need for you to be upset. I carry no grievance against you at all,” and then engaged him in an interesting discussion. At one point, he asked him, “Why did you travel to Vilna?”
“I am seeking to be ordained as a shochet,” the young man responded.
“I can help you,” said R’ Yisroel. “My son-in-law is one of the chief rabbis of the city. I will make the necessary introductions.”
The young man immediately gained an audience with R’ Eliyahu Grudensky, who tested the applicant. Unfortunately, the young man was not adequately conversant in the material and was not ordained.
R’ Yisroel advised him to rest a few days and then come back to him, but the young man did not return. R’ Yisroel then sought him out and asked, “Why didn’t you return?”
“The rav opened my eyes,” said the young man. “I now know my place, and I am going to return home.” R’ Yisroel, however, encouraged him to study the laws of shechita well and also helped him find an expert shochet who could teach him the practical skills. The young man became fully proficient and mastered the necessary material for ordination thanks to R’ Yisroel Salanter. R’ Yisroel also helped him get his first job.
When R’ Yisroel Salanter was asked why he had gone to such lengths to help the young man, he replied, “When he first came and asked for forgiveness, I assured him that I had wholeheartedly forgiven him. But since I am a mere human being, I feared that my humility was not what it should be. I therefore made every effort to confirm that my pardon emanated from a point of true humility by intensifying my middah of mercy through ensuring the best for this young man.