Money and Honor
The character, Bilaam is considered to be the archetype of a person with bad character traits. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot describes him as having an 'ayin raah' (he looked upon people in a negative way), a 'ruach gevo'ah' (he was arrogant), and a 'nefesh rechava' (1) (he was greedy).
'Nefesh Rechava' refers specifically to Bilaam's love for money; the commentaries derive his greediness from his response to the request of Balak's ministers for him to curse the Jewish people. They said, "...So said Balak son of Tsipor, please do not refuse from coming to me. I will greatly honor you and everything that you say I will do, please go and curse this nation for me." "Bilaam replied and said to Balak's servants, if Balak will give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of HaShem, my God, to do small or great." (2) On superficial analysis we learn Bilaam's greediness from the large sum of money that he alluded to in his refusal to go against God's words.
However, the commentaries point out that this cannot be true, because there is another example in the Rabbinical literature where a genuine Torah scholar used a similar expression to that of Bilaam. The Mishna in Pirkei Avot(3) describes the account of the great Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma, who was approached by a wealthy man to leave his place of Torah to dwell in another city that was lacking in Torah scholars. The man offered him an immense amount of money in his attempt to persuade Rebbe Yosse to come to his city. Rebbe Yosse replied, 'if you give me all the silver, gold and precious pearls in the world I will only live in a place of Torah." Rebbe Yosse mentioned an even greater amount of money than Bilaam and there is no indication at all that he showed any sign of greediness in his reply. What is the difference between Bilaam's response and that of Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma?(4)
On deeper analysis it seems that there is a significant difference between Bilaam and Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma. When the man tried to persuade Rebbe Yosse to stay in his city he promised him a great amount of money, and, in response, Rebbe Yosse replied that no amount of money could make him leave a place of Torah. It was appropriate for Rebbe Yosse to refer to money because the man directly mentioned it himself. In contrast, the ministers of Balak never made any mention of money in their attempts to convince Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. Rather, they said that Balak offered to "greatly honor" him. Bilaam replied by saying the even a great amount of money would not enable him to curse the Jews if God did not allow it. From Bilaam's mention of money we see two things: Firstly that money was something that was so prevalent in his mind that he brought it up even when no-one else had made any mention of it. Secondly, on a deeper level, we see that he related to the concept of "honor" as meaning, 'financial benefit' - to Bilaam, honor and money were the same thing. This proves his love for money, because a person who does not love money will not think that it is equivalent to honor.
A difficulty still remains with this explanation. It would have seemed that someone who loves money would not necessarily consider that its main benefit is honor, rather people want money so that they can make materialistic acquisitions. Having money enables a person to satisfy his desires for physical pleasures such as a nice house, a fast car, good food, and lots of vacations. Given this, why did Bilaam equate honor with money? There are two possible motivations behind a person's love of money; one is an attachment to physicality, whereby he wants money to fulfill his physical desires. The second is that having a great deal of money can enable a person to receive honor and respect from others. This means that everyone is looking for some kind of meaning - honor is one of the main ways that a starved soul can try to derive some satisfaction. In western society today, having money is probably the greatest way of receiving honor.
When a person wants money in order to receive honor then he will never be satisfied no matter how much money he acquires - for him, money gives him honor, but his soul will instinctively crave more honor as a source of meaning. Consequently he will try to fulfill this desire by acquiring more money, but will constantly feel dissatisfied. It seems that it is this kind of love for money that the Rabbis refer to when they say that when a person gets 100 maneh he wants 200 maneh, and when he gets 200 maneh he wants 400 maneh. For this person, money is his means to gaining honor but he will always crave more honor and therefore he will always want more money to satisfy this desire for honor. For Bilaam money was certainly a vehicle for attaining more honor.
From Bilaam's equating money with honor, it is clear that his 'nefesh rechava' (greed) caused him to have the more pernicious kind of love for money - the kind that emanates from a desire for honor. The Slonimer Rebbe in his seminal work Netivot Shalom discusses how damaging this can be to a person - in the aforementioned Mishna in Pirkei Avot the studetns of Bilaam are compared with those of Abraham. Towards the end of the Mishna it asks what the difference is between the two groups. It explains that "the students of Abraham eat in Olam Hazeh (this world) and inherit Olam Haba (the Next World)... but the students of the evil Bilaam inherit Gehinnom and go down to the well of destruction." (5) What is the repetitive language used with regard to Bilaam's students, of 'Gehinnom' and 'well of destruction'? The Netivot Shalom explains that the 'well of destruction' refers to Olam Haba, whereas 'Gehinnom' actually refers to Olam Hazeh - the students of Bilaam do not only experience great pain in the next world, they also suffer in this world. They are so concerned about gaining more acquisitions and more honor that they can never attain satisfaction in their lives to the extent that they live Gehinnom even in Olam Hazeh!
This explanation teaches an obvious lesson that the relentless drive for money can never provide a person with true satisfaction. A certain amount of money is a necessary means to helping people attain the end of a meaningful life, but it is essential to remain vigilant that it remains as a 'means' and does not become the ultimate goal in itself. Instead, occupying one's time with developing a relationship with God can provide the only source of satisfaction that leaves a person truly satisfied.
1. Avos, 5:22.
2. Balak, 22:16-18.
3. Avos, 6:9.
4. Many commentaries discuss why Bilaam's response indicated that he was greedy; these include; Mizrachi, Maskil le'David, Nachalas Yaakov, Be'er b'sadeh, Emes le'Yaakov, and Rav Elyashiv in Divrei Aggadah. They offer a variety of explanations but a different approach will be used here.
5. Avos, 5;22.