26 Jun Continuing Education
How would you define student?
To clarify what a Talmid is, Rabbeinu Ovadia Bartenura in Pirkei Avos (5:22) explains: “Lamad mimenu v’holeich bedrachav – he learned from him and follows in his ways.” Thus the Mishneh states:
“Whoever has these three traits is from the students of Avraham, and whoever has three different traits is from the students of the evil Bilam. Those who have a good eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul are the students of Avraham. Those who have an evil eye, an arrogant spirit, and a greedy soul are the students of Bilam.”
Balak learned that the power of Bnei Yisrael was in the tongue, in tefillah and brachos. He thus sought the services of the navi Bilam to destroy Bnei Yisrael by cursing them. The Torah demonstrates Bilam’s vile, nefarious character. “He lifted his eyes and he saw Yisrael” with an evil eye, in order to curse them (Balak 24:2). In haughtiness he said to the emissaries of Balak, “Hashem does not want me to go with you,” implying that the mission was worthy, but the messengers were not important enough (Balak 22:13). In greed he said, “Even if you were to give me all of your wealth, I cannot fulfill your request,” implying that he really wanted and felt deserving of all of Balak’s wealth. He was anticipating a handsome reward for his services (Balak 22:18).
Bilam’s behavior is contrasted with that of Moshe. Moshe, with his prophecy, led Bnei Yisrael to Avodas Hashem. Bilam, on the other hand, despite his gift of prophecy, chose the path of evil. Moshe and Bilam were contemporaries. Why does the Mishneh analyze the differences between Bilam and Avraham who lived generations earlier?
Derech Eretz kadmah LaTorah. Proper character traits precede Torah. They are the foundation of Torah. The era of Avraham Avinu came before that of Moshe Rabbeinu. From Avraham we learn middos. In the Torah we do not find each individual character trait described as a Mitzvah. The reason is not because they do not compare to the other mitzvos of the Torah. Rather, they are so important and basic that they must be dealt with even before advancing in Torah. Everything hinges on that foundation! (Shaarei Kedusha of Rav Chaim Vital; Chachmah U’Mussar).
The Mishneh notes two extremes. Avraham grew up in a home and society of idol worship. Nevertheless, he became the first of our Avos, serving as a role model for proper behavior and emunah. Bilam, on the other hand, lived in a time of open miracles and received the gift of prophecy. Yet, despite these advantages, he was spiritually deficient. Why? This was due to the failings in his character (Rav Yechezkel Levenstein).
“Whoever has these three traits is from the students of Avraham…” Why is there a need for this introduction to the Mishneh? Why doesn’t it begin with the second sentence that enumerates the traits? Furthermore, why does the Mishneh say that one is from the students of Avraham or Bilam, rather than simply stating that one is behaving like Avraham or Bilam?
The Mishneh is teaching us that one is always a student. One does not have to be in a classroom setting to learn. Character, values, and social mores are acquired. We are always learning from somebody whether we realize it or not. Of course, we are born with inherent traits. However, the behavior of others impacts us. Even with the passing of thousands of years, Avraham’s teachings still guide us. His impact on society affected the world of the past and affects us and the world today. Additionally, we witness the conduct of others and make choices. Who we become is the result of a continuing process of education and the choices we make every day of our lives.
Do we sometimes resign ourselves to remain at status quo, saying this is who I am, and I cannot and will not change? Do we deliberately seek ways to improve our character? What efforts do we make to be from the students of Avraham?
Character improvement is a lifelong process.