The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (5:13) famously lists three qualities that make a person “among the students of our patriarch Avraham” – namely, “a good eye, a lowly spirit, and a humble soul.” If one possesses the three opposite qualities, the Mishna says – meaning, he has “a negative eye, a haughty spirit, and an arrogant soul” – then he is “among the students of the evil Bilam.”
The question arises, are these truly the only points of distinction between Avraham and Bilam? Chazal portray Bilam as a cruel, greedy, immoral villain. Can we really identify only three differences between him and Avraham?
The Tolna Rebbe answers this question by noting Avraham and Bilam’s respective beginnings. Avraham, of course, was raised in a pagan home, and the Rambam (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:3) emphasizes that Avraham had nobody at all teaching him about monotheistic faith. With Avraham’s background and upbringing, he would normally have become just another pagan. Yet, as a result of his intensive process of contemplation, as the Rambam there describes, Avraham emerged as one of the greatest human beings that ever lived. By contrast, Avot De-Rabbi Natan (2:5) says that Bilam was born circumcised, indicating that he was born with exceptional talents and spiritual potential. This is also likely the meaning of Chazal’s famous comment (Bamidbar Rabba 14:20) that Bilam had prophetic capabilities equal to those of Moshe Rabbenu. Bilam was a man of great potential, but he misused his talents and became an evil man.
In light of this, the Tolna Rebbe suggests that the Mishna in Avot seeks not to note the distinctions between Avraham and Bilam – of which they are, undoubtedly, too many to enumerate – but rather to identify why it is that Avraham rose to great heights while Bilam sank to the lowest depths. Why did Avraham emerge from such humble beginnings to the stature of greatness he attained, while Bilam, who was endowed with outstanding talents, grew to become such an evil man? The Mishna answers by noting the qualities of “a good eye, a lowly spirit, and a humble soul.” Avraham became great by seeing the goodness in others without demanding honor for himself. The key to growth is humility, honestly recognizing one’s own faults and deficiencies, and acknowledging that he still has a great deal to learn and achieve. Conversely, Bilam’s downfall was caused by his arrogance, his overconfidence, his belief that he knew all he had to know, and his preoccupation with the vain pursuit of prestige and recognition. Arrogance has the effect of preventing growth and sending one on a downward, self-destructive spiral of sin, and so despite Bilam’s potential for greatness, he led a wicked, sinful life as a result of his arrogance.
Thus, the Mishna refers not to the “final products” of Avraham and Bilam, but rather to the spiritual processes that turned them into the kind of men they were. It instructs that regardless of our background, upbringing, and natural talents, we can become great like Avraham Avinu or wicked like Bilam, depending on our outlook on ourselves and on others. If we look at others with a “good eye” and ourselves with a “lowly spirit” and “humble soul,” we will then focus our attention on building ourselves and growing, rather than satisfying our need for self-fulfillment by finding fault in other people and looking upon them with arrogant condescension.