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Eyes have it: Generous Avraham, grudging Bilam


Pirkei Avot (5:22) contrasts the virtues of Avraham with the vices of Bilam: Whoever possesses a generous eye, a humble spirit and a meek soul is a disciple of our father Avraham; but one who possesses the opposite qualities — a grudging eye, a proud spirit and a haughty soul—is a disciple of the wicked Bilam.

What is so unique about Avraham and Bilam that makes them paradigms for good and evil? Perhaps the answer is in how each of them dealt with an external group of people with whom they had no particular connection.

The people of Sodom were wicked, and the Almighty planned to destroy the city. Avraham sought the L-rd’s mercy, pleading that the city should be spared if at least ten righteous people could be found within it. Avraham might simply have prayed for the salvation of his nephew Lot and family. Why did he intercede on behalf of strangers — especially when G-d had informed him that the Sodomites were worthy of destruction due to their sinfulness? Avraham had “a generous eye.” He was concerned for the wellbeing of others, even strangers, even sinners.

Bilam, hired by the king Balak, had no reason to hate Israel or to curse Israel, yet he was willing to use his powers against them. G-d intervened and made him utter blessings rather than curses. Bilam had a “grudging eye.” Unlike Avraham, who prayed on behalf of Sodom, Bilam was ready to curse a people who had done him no wrong and with whom he had no particular connection.

It is natural for people to be concerned about their own families, communities and in-groups. It is more of a challenge to be concerned about “outsiders,” those of different backgrounds, nations, ethnicities. Disciples of Avraham demonstrate “a generous eye,” an attitude that recognizes the essential humanity of all people and that feels responsibility for others, including “outsiders.” Disciples of Bilam demonstrate “a grudging eye,” an attitude that feels no obligation to “outsiders,” that is neutral or negative about the rights and feelings of others. Whereas Avraham prayed for a wicked people, Bilam stood ready to curse innocents.

The paradigms of Avraham and Bilam continue to be relevant. Millions of people live in poverty, in war zones, in lands of oppression. Hundreds of thousands of them flee their homelands in search of a better environment for themselves and their families. Their favored destinations are lands of freedom and economic opportunity. Yet even in these free and relatively wealthy countries, economic conditions are not ideal. The new immigrants — many of whom arrive illegally — create heavy burdens on the host countries, which are themselves struggling with economic downturns and high unemployment.

How do we view these “outsiders?” Do we have “a generous eye” like our father Avraham, or “a grudging eye” like the wicked Bilam? Do we stop to remember that in recent generations, so many of our own parents and grandparents were refugees seeking safe havens — and who often confronted more Bilams than Avrahams during their times of danger and distress?

Surely, it can be argued that each country has limited resources and has the right to secure its borders from illegal immigrants. Surely, no country can allow itself to be inundated by waves of people who do not follow the proper legal channels for immigration.

But when policies are made and opinions are espoused, we need to step back and ask ourselves: are we disciples of Avraham or disciples of Bilam?

While even disciples of Avraham will have limits to how much they can do to help others, they will at least approach the issue with a humane and compassionate attitude. They will reach for their maximum, not settle for the bare minimum. They will think and act with a generous eye.