June 14, 2024
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June 14, 2024
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Except for the saints among us, we all boast. Sometimes we boast about our own natural endowments, our good looks, or our athletic prowess. Often we boast about our achievements, social or professional.

There is one type of boasting that seems to be unique to the traditional Jewish commu­nity. That is a boasting not about oneself, but rather about one’s teachers, or rebbeim. Thus, you will find young people saying, “My rebbe is greater than yours!” Or, “I am a student of so-and-so, so you better respect me for that!”

For some of us, it sounds strange that a person would claim religious or intellec­tual superiority on the basis of the iden­tity of his teacher. After all, the piety or wisdom of a teacher does not necessarily filter down to the disciple. Nevertheless, boasting about the greatness of one’s mas­ter is fairly common in some of our cir­cles.

My paternal grandfather, Reb Chaim Yitzchak Weinreb of blessed memory, was particularly perturbed about this phenom­enon. As loyal readers of this column know, my zaide taught me many things. One les­son he repeatedly emphasized was the im­portance of not falling prey to the tenden­cy of boasting about whose student one was. He felt it was much more important to be able to claim that one was actually walk­ing in the footsteps of the master, behavio­rally emulating his virtues and accomplish­ments.

One of the proof texts that he adduced to help drive this lesson home was a passage in the fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fa­thers, which reads:

“Whoever possesses these three traits is one of the disciples of our father Abraham; whoever possesses the three opposite traits is one of the disciples of the wicked Bal­aam. A generous eye, a modest demeanor, and a humble soul are the traits of the disci­ples of our father Abraham. An evil eye, an arrogant demeanor, and an insatiable soul are attributes of the disciples of the wick­ed Balaam. What is the difference between our father Abraham’s disciples and those of the wicked Balaam? Our father Abraham’s disciples enjoy this world and inherit the world to come… The wicked Balaam’s disci­ples inherit Gehinnom and go down to the pit of destruction…”

My grandfather would expound upon the above text by saying: “Imagine that a person studied for years under some great Chassidic Rebbe, dressed like him, and imitated his every gesture. Or imag­ine the student who attended the lectures of some great yeshiva head and could ac­tually repeat every word verbatim. But if that person or student was guilty of envy, of arrogance, or of selfishness, he would be categorized by our Sages not as a disciple of the great Rebbe or Talmudist, but as the dis­ciple of the wicked Balaam.”

He would continue to drive home his point by stressing the flip side of the teaching of Pirkei Avot: “On the other hand, imagine the person to whom circumstances denied the privilege of spending time with a great Chas­sidic Rebbe or the chance to study under the tutelage of a Talmudic giant. But if that person was generous, modest and humble, he could lay claim to the title ‘disciple of our father Abra­ham.’”

Balaam is the main character in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Balak (Num­bers 22:2-25:9). There is much to be gained from a careful study of Balaam’s behav­ior. One major lesson is that a person can be wise and famous, internationally re­nowned, and endowed with mystical pow­ers and the gift of prophecy, yet be done in by the flaws of his personal character.

I no longer remember whether or not I asked my grandfather the question that oc­curred to me long ago about this passage in Pirkei Avot. I remain puzzled by why our Sages choose not to compare Balaam with his contemporary and adversary Moses. Why do they instead choose to contrast him with Abraham, who lived centuries be­fore Balaam?

I have come to believe that our Sages had good reason for preferring the Balaam/ Abraham comparison. I suggest that our rabbis were fascinated by the many simi­larities between the two. They were both prophets, but prophets whose missions were not confined to the Jewish people. Balaam was designated as a prophet for all the nations of the world, and Abraham, al­though the biological father of the Jewish people, was also the av hamon goyim, the spiritual father of all of humanity.

Both Abraham and Balaam shared the un­usual power of being able to bless others ef­fectively. Of Abraham, it is written, “I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Genesis 12:2-3). And Balak, king of Moab, is sufficiently confi­dent of Balaam’s abilities to say, “For I know that he whom you bless is blessed indeed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” (Numbers 22:6)

Furthermore, both Abraham and Ba­laam set off on long journeys, one to the binding of Isaac, and the other to nefar­iously undermine the people of Israel. Both wake up in the early morning to load their donkeys in preparation of their jour­neys. And each of them is accompanied upon his journey by two young servants. The message seems clear. Two individuals who are similar to each other in so many ways can ultimately be so different that one’s disciples “inherit the World to Come,” whereas the disciples of the other “inher­it Gehinnom and go down to the pit of de­struction.” One fails to properly use his di­vinely given blessings and, because of his “evil eye, arrogant demeanor and insatiable soul,” becomes the archetype of perversion and treachery.

The other cultivates “a generous eye, a modest demeanor, and a humble soul” with such success that those of us who em­ulate him, even if we live millennia after his death, can lay claim to being his disci­ples.

The next time someone asks you, “Un­der whom did you study? Whose disciple are you?” I hope you can say that you are at least striving to become a disciple of Abra­ham.

By Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersch Weinreb

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