The Mishna in Ethics of Our Fathers makes a distinction between two figures; our forefather Avraham and the wicked non-Jewish prophet Bilaam.
The Mishna tells that a student of Avraham possesses the following three qualities; a good eye, a humble spirit and a gentle soul; whereas a student of Bilaam, possesses an evil eye, an arrogant spirit and a harsh soul.
Rabbi Nissin Alpert o.b.m. asks: Why does the Mishna have to make a distinction between Avraham, who was righteous, kind and initiated the spread monotheism in the world, to the decadent Bilaam, who the Torah calls a Rasha – a wicked person? After all, there seems to be no comparison at all between Avraham and Bilaam.
Rabbi Alpert explains: Astonishingly, Bilaam believed in G-d. He not only communicated with G-d through prophesy, he even conveyed the monotheistic belief to others. We can see this because when Bilaam was asked by Balak the King of Moav to curse the Jews, Bilaam instructed Balak on three occasions to build seven altars and sacrifice a total of 42 animals to G-d. Mind you, Balak and the rest of the world were steeped in idol worship. For Balak to acquiesce to offer sacrifices to G-d meant that Bilaam was able to convince him of G-d’s existence.
Interestingly, no matter what Bilaam did to try to manipulate G-d into allowing him to curse the Jews he was unsuccessful. In the end he actually blessed the Jews. Bilaam, while extolling the Jews about their modesty and refinement, made a stunning statement, “Let me die the death of the straight ones.” Our Sages explain that the ‘straight ones’ refers to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaacov. Bilaam was conveying that although he was incapable of living an exalted and righteous lifestyle, he wished that at the final moments of his life, he would die as an honorable moral person like our forefathers.
Just as Avraham spread monotheism in the world, Bilaam, through the gift of prophesy, did the same. Thus, they shared this common purpose, and for this reason Avraham and Bilaam are contrasted in the Mishna.
Bilaam recognized his capacity to be righteous but chose not to.
The question remains, if Bilaam was a prophet and believed in G-d, where did he go wrong? Says Rabbi Alpert, this is exactly what the Mishna is capturing. Bilaam led such an immoral lifestyle because he saw only evil in others, he had an arrogant posture and was inconsiderate of others.
The Mishna is teaching us that bad character traits took Bilaam, who had the potential to be as great a prophet as Moshe, and reduced him to the lowest levels of immorality and ethical behavior.
In fact, the Talmud tells us that Bilaam was granted the capacity and capability of prophecy akin to our leader Moshe. G-d granted a non-Jewish prophet such abilities so that if the non-Jews protest that they weren’t given a Moses, He can show them that they were given Bilaam.
We see that Bilaam is contrasted with two of our greatest people, Avraham and Moshe. When you analyze the lives of Avraham and Moshe they both shared a similar background with Bilaam. Avraham was raised in a home steeped in idolatry, but at a young age he broke away from it and embraced the monotheistic belief in G-d. He spread it to the world earning himself the position of the forefather of G-d’s nation. Moshe too was raised from infancy until twenty years old as a prince in the decadent palace of the Pharoh. He too, made the decision to escape the status quo and look after his brethren. He continually raised his religious consciousness and connection to the Almighty until he rose to become the greatest leader and prophet, and was called by G-d, “My most humble servant.”
Bilaam had the potential to be the Avraham or Moshe of the nations of the world. However he gave in to temptation and pursued and fulfilled all his desires. He made the decision to utilize his G-dly gift of prophesy to curse, destroy and to cause others to sin as well.
Since we are the descendants of Avraham, we inherently possess the three qualities: having a good eye, a humble spirit and a gentle soul. Our challenge is to preserve these qualities, in the face of all the influences that oppose them. This can be achieved by maintaining a continual devotion to G-d, His Torah and His Mitzvos!