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Touch Typing

Why does the Mishnah contrast the middos of Avraham and Bilaam rather than Bilaam and Moshe?

“Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Bnei Yisrael dwelling according to its tribes….” (Bamidbar 24:2)


The mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:19) highlights the contrast between the talmidim of Avraham and the talmidim of Bilaam. The former have “a good eye, a humble spirit, and a modest soul”; the latter possess “an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a greedy soul.” These correspond to the three middos, jealousy, lust and power, which drive a person out of this world. The mishnah further states that the talmidim of Avraham will reap the benefits of their actions both in This World and in the next, while those of Bilaam end up in the lowest section of Gehinnom.
Why does the mishnah draw the distinction between the disciples of Avraham and Bilaam rather than between Moshe and Bilaam, who were contemporaries? Furthermore, Bilaam is compared to Moshe in prophecy — why not in middos as well? (Rav Eliezer Chrysler, Middei Shabbos)

Ninth-grade biology — the intricacies of genetics.

“This won’t hurt,” my teacher was insisting as she handed out the kits. “One small pinprick and you’ll know your blood type. Then go home and compare your results with your parents.”

“I’m going to pass out!” Devora was always melodramatic

“I don’t believe in types.” Tzippy — ever politically correct.

“Hey!” Rivka yelled. “I’m A-plus!”

“Don’t you wish you could put that on your report card?” muttered Rina. “I’m B minus. Too bad.”

“Whaddaya know, I’m also A-plus!” I nudged my results over to Rivka. “I always knew you were totally my type!”

To answer this question, we need first to understand that a person’s deeds stem from his character traits. A jealous person will be prone to steal, an angry person to harm, and a lustful person to indulge.

I subsequently learned that ninth-grade classroom experiments are not foolproof, as a simple blood test later in life proved. But the scene flashed through my mind at my neighbor Sara’s bar mitzvah a few weeks ago.

I’ve always liked and admired Sara. South African by birth, she was the sweetest, politest person I knew. But more than that, she possessed an innate chein, a genuine warmth that spread itself to everyone she met.

So I wasn’t surprised to walk into the hall and see her moving from table to table, gesturing, smiling, and making everyone feel at home. What did surprise me, though, was seeing another woman, a slightly older version of Sara, also graciously welcoming guests. And to the side, was an even older version — same Sara face — and she too was warmly greeting people. Had they managed to clone a Sara Special?

This explains why the Mishnah contrasts the middos of Avraham and Bilaam rather than Bilaam and Moshe. Basic traits for the most part, are part of our genetic makeup, largely inherited from our parents and ancestors. Moshe descended from a line of tzaddikim — Amram and Yocheved, Kehas, and Levi — whereas the ancestry of Bilaam (alias Lavan) included idolaters and swindlers. It would be unfair to compare him to Moshe.
Like Bilaam, though, Avraham Avinu, was the son of a seasoned idolater, which rendered the contrast between the two all the more striking. When you compare the accomplishments of Avraham and Bilaam, you realize that it was not basic middos, but choices and willpower that dictated the result. Avraham decided to control his impulses in all of the three areas described in the Mishnah, whereas Bilaam, lacking the willpower to fight his impulses, allowed them to control him.

As I drew closer to Sara to wish her mazel tov, she gestured to the two women near her. “Have you met my mother and sister? They came all the way in for the simchah. I really want you to meet them.”

I really wanted to meet them, too, as it was obvious this family was unique. While their near-identical faces may have been inherited, their values were clearly inherent in the choices they’d made throughout their lives. Just deep-down incredibly special people. You know the type.


 (Originally featured in Family First, Issue 748)

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