We consider Abraham to be the first Jew, the forefather of our nation. Growing up among idolaters, he had the inquisitiveness and the objectivity to look beyond his upbringing and environment, and to discover the True Force which brought about all existence. And once he recognized the God of creation, he did not stop there. He and his wife Sarah devoted their lives to spreading the faith – to teaching the world of God’s existence and greatness.
What was the secret to Abraham’s greatness? Was he just smart – able to discern the Infinite where his contemporaries saw only the tangible? But he was more than that. He did not keep his new-found knowledge to himself, withdrawing into himself to contemplate the divine. He turned outwards. He gave his life to teaching God to the masses. And he and Sarah opened their homes as well – to travelers, to seekers, to whoever would hear. They were not satisfied with their own relationship with God. They taught it to mankind. They made spreading the faith their purpose in life. From where did Abraham draw such strength and greatness of character? Was he just born great?
The Sages often contrast Abraham to the wicked prophet Balaam (see for example Pirkei Avot 5:22). We read of Balaam in Numbers 22-24. He was a Gentile prophet who was active at the time of the Exodus. Yet in spite of his lofty divine encounters, he was wicked through and through. He would use his prophetic powers for his own selfish ends. He would hire himself out to the highest bidder, typically a king who wanted to defeat his adversaries. For the right price he would curse the enemy nation, aiding the king in his belligerent pursuits, cashing in handsomely for himself in the process. As we read in Numbers, Balak, King of Moab, hired him in an unsuccessful attempt to curse and banish the Children of Israel.
What is the message of the Sages in so often contrasting Abraham to Balaam? We know, of course, that the one was great while the other wicked. But the Sages appear to see some common denominator between these two individuals – that which Abraham excelled in Balaam failed in. What exactly do these two people have in common?
I believe the key may be found in a passage in the Talmud (Brachos 7a). In Numbers 24:16 Balaam refers to himself as one who "knows the knowledge of the Most High." To this the Talmud asks: how could Balaam claim he knows the knowledge of God? He could not even understand his own animal! (He did not know why his donkey refused to obey his orders when the angel stood before them.) Rather, answers the Talmud, he knew the one moment in the day in which God becomes angry (and he attempted to curse Israel at precisely that moment).
Now to me this passage is inexplicable. What does the Talmud mean if Balaam did not understand his animal he could not possibly understand God? Perhaps it’s just the opposite! Perhaps the very fact that Balaam was so busy contemplating the upper spheres made him oblivious to the needs of a dumb beast. Perhaps his very loftiness made it all the more difficult for him to relate to the physical realm (as in the stereotypical absent-minded professor). Why does the Talmud assume that one who cannot understand an animal cannot understand God?
But that is precisely the Talmud’s point. A person who cannot relate to the physical world cannot possibly relate to the spiritual. Let’s understand why.
A person who cannot relate to the physical world cannot possibly relate to the spiritual.
Let us now look at Abraham – Balaam’s opposite number. How did Abraham become who he was? Was he born to a learned, illustrious family? Was he blessed with a superior upbringing, steeped in knowledge and holiness from a tender age? No, say the Sages. His father Terach was an idolater – so zealous, in fact, that he turned in his own son to the authorities for practicing and preaching monotheism.
Who taught Abraham about God? Our Sages explain: He figured it out himself. The Midrash teaches us that as a three year old boy Abraham began to search for God. He saw harmony and beauty in the world and recognized there must be a greater force which created and orchestrated it all. As a little boy, he saw the sun and wondered if that was the great force which gave rise to the Earth. But then the sun set and the moon reigned. And the moon too set with the sun's rising. Thus, Abraham, using the acuity and sincere openness of youth, was able to see through the idols and icons of his society and recognize the ultimate truth: that a world of infinite design and beauty could have been created only by a Deity of infinite perfection.
There was something very "healthy" about Abraham's recognition of God: he worked his way up to it.
There was thus something very "healthy" about Abraham's recognition of God: he worked his way up to it. He saw the beauty and harmony of the physical world and was able to discern from it the even greater beauty and harmony of the spiritual worlds. And in doing so, Abraham came not only to revere God, but to revere nature and everything in between as well. The entire universe was magnificent and a part of God's handiwork. All of creation was sacred; its beauty attested to God's existence, and its existence bespoke a role in God's Master Plan.
As a result, Abraham was not only famous for his belief in God but for something else as well – hospitality. If God is sacred, then man, formed in God's image, is as well – and must be treated as such. And nature is important too. Genesis 22:33 states that Abraham planted (or established) an "aishel" in Be'er Sheva. The Talmud records a debate if aishel means an inn or an orchard – to provide fresh fruit for travelers (Sotah 10a). Abraham respected the natural world, seeing it as a resource to be used wisely and properly – in order to do kindness for others.
Balaam, for all his prophetic powers, stood in stark contrast to Abraham. Balaam saw God before him but never built up to such an encounter. He couldn't even relate to the simple needs of his pathetic beast. He was certainly not ready to glimpse the forces above and beyond the natural world. He therefore saw God but saw Him through the prism of the physical. The best he could do with his knowledge was to utterly pervert it, using it for his personal gain ("How much money can I get out of this?"), and to flee from all meaningful spiritual existence to the darkest depths of physical depravity.
Abraham’s life thus teaches us a great lesson in discovering God. We can really find God everywhere about us if we just view the world with open eyes. God left signposts of His existence all throughout the natural world. And as Abraham, we can pick up on His clues and build up from there to greater things. But there are no shortcuts. We cannot skip the lower world and expect to have a meaningful relationship with the God above. If we are not good, decent human beings, living in harmony with society and the natural world, we cannot expect to be very good spiritual ones either. Spirituality and holiness are right before us, but we must first build ourselves up for such a divine encounter.
After comparing the good qualities of Abraham to the wicked ones of Balaam, the mishna in Pirkei Avot makes a fascinating observation. Those who follow the ways of Abraham not only earn the World to Come – they enjoy themselves in this world as well. One who truly follows the footsteps of Abraham also recognizes the beauty of the physical world. He does not see spirituality as some separate plane of existence, accessible only to those who withdraw from the crudeness and baseness of the material world. He sees everything in this universe as beautiful and purposeful in God’s Master Plan. There is no aspect of creation nor human drive which cannot be harnessed in the divine service. If God created it, it is inherently beautiful and valuable.
Thus, far from ignoring this world as a distraction from spiritual pursuits, Abraham teaches us to appreciate God's universe and to use it as a means for striving closer to Him. For only if we work our way up will all parts of God’s creation merge into a single, panoramic whole.