In the cycle of Torah readings, two portions in the past three weeks deal with controversial and negative figures. Korach is the leader of a rebellion against Moses, in which demagoguery masquerades as a plea for democracy (“All of the Lord’s people are holy….”). Balaam is featured in this week’s portion and is represented in the Torah as a sorcerer whose power to curse leads him to be hired by Balak, the king of Moab, who wants to destroy the Israelites approaching his territory on their Exodus march from Egypt.
That the Torah records stories of controversial figures is not in itself unusual. That the later rabbis assigned the names of Torah portions (Korach, Balak) to such difficult people is a bit unusual. But that both Korach and Balaam appear in the text Pirkei Avot (Teachings of the Early Rabbis) invites exploration.
Pirkei Avot is a collection of teachings that is invested in typologies; it is instructive to note that in it, both Korach and Balaam appear as typological figures whose patterns of behavior become representative of a negative personality profile that will (of course) be contrasted with a positive one from the Jewish tradition.
In Pirkei Avot 5:22 the text teaches: One who has these attributes is a disciple of Abraham: a kind/discerning eye, a humble mind, and a generous spirit. One who has the attributes of a cruel/unreflective eye, an arrogant mind, and a critical spirit is a disciple of Balaam the Wicked. The text continues: Disciples of Abraham enjoy both this world and the world to come, but disciples of Balaam face eternal purgatory (“Gehinom”).
According to scholar Jacob Neusner, Pirkei Avot was concerned to identify the “virtues of generosity, modesty, and humility” as distinctive. The Torah is content to describe Balaam as an evil monarch, from whom nothing in particular is learned. But Pirkei Avot challenges each of us to see Balaam as a paradigm contrasted with Abraham, encouraging us to grow toward the virtues embodied by him — Abraham is the exemplar of how to behave; Balaam is the paradigm for how not to behave.
There is one kind of typological thinking that assigns right behavior to one group and bad behavior to another. But those typologies often lead to caricatures, which can then often lead to stereotypes. When any one person is made to stand in for an entire group, it becomes tempting to assign the behavior of that one person (for good or for bad) to the characteristics of all persons from that same group.
It is therefore of importance that Pirkei Avot uses the term “disciple of” and not “descendant of.” It is a warning not to assume that each member of any group automatically embodies certain traits or behaviors. Pirkei Avot suggests it is the type of behavior one exhibits, rather than the community to which one belongs or the lineage one can claim, that defines one as a “disciple of Abraham.” Anyone who chooses a life of kindness, humility, and generosity can be a disciple of Abraham.