SALT - Friday, 16 Tammuz 5778 - June 29, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The Mishna in Masekhet Avot (5:19) famously casts the characters of Bilam and Avraham as polar opposites, listing three qualities that characterize Avraham, followed by the reverse qualities that characterize Bilam.  One of these pairs of qualities is humility and arrogance.  Avraham is described as having a “ru’ach nemukha” – “lowly spirit” – in contrast to Bilam’s “ru’ach gevoha” – “arrogant spirit.”
            It has been suggested that Bilam’s “arrogance” noted by the Mishna was expressed in his tactic to move to a new location after each unsuccessful attempt to curse Benei Yisrael.  After his first failure, Balak told Bilam to try placing a curse in a different place (23:13), and then, after the second failure, he said, “Come, I will take you somewhere else; perhaps God will see fit that you shall curse them from there” (23:27).  The underlying assumption of this tactic is that Bilam fundamentally was capable of placing a curse upon Benei Yisrael, and it was only an external factor – the location – which stood in the way of success.  If only he would try in a different setting, he figured, he would be successful and achieve his goal.
            Avraham took the precise opposite approach when he met with failure.  The Torah tells that on the morning when the city of Sedom was destroyed, “Avraham arose in the morning [and went to] the place where he had stood in the presence of the Lord” (19:26) – presumably referring to the place where Avraham had unsuccessfully pleaded with God to spare the city.  The Gemara in Masekhet Berakhot (26b) famously interprets this verse as a reference to prayer – indicating that despite his prayer of the previous day not having yielded the desired results, Avraham returned to the precise same spot to pray again.  Avraham did not attribute his prayer’s rejection to his surroundings.  He returned to the same spot, assured that the location of his prayer had nothing to do with its failure to achieve its desired goal.  If there was a failure with his prayer, Avraham thought, it must lie with him, and not with any external factor.  This was the nature of Avraham’s humility and its contrast with Bilam’s arrogance.  Whereas Bilam attributed his mistakes to external circumstances, Avraham took responsibility, without casting the blame elsewhere.  (This insight is mentioned by Rav Elimelech Biderman in Be’er Ha-parasha, Balak, note 15.)
            It’s very convenient and tempting to point to our “location,” to external circumstances, as the source of our problems, our disappointments, our shortcomings and our failures.  However, the Mishna teaches that blaming external factors is a sign of arrogance and conceit, of one’s inability to hold himself or herself accountable and acknowledge guilt and accept fault.  We are to follow the example of humility set by Avraham, who instead of trying to blame his lack of success on his surroundings, went ahead and continued trying.  The proper response to failure is to acknowledge our mistakes and try to correct them in the future, a response that will help ensure that we will only get better and achieve more as we proceed through life.