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In chapter 5 of Pirkei Avos, it states (from Chabad.org):

יט. כל מי שיש בידו שלושה דברים הללו הוא מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו. ושלושה דברים אחרים הוא מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.

19. Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; and whoever possesses the opposite three traits is of the disciples of the wicked Balaam

The three traits are: a good/evil eye, a meek/haughty soul, and a humble/gross spirit.

There must be a tens of people the Mishna could have picked to represent these traits, on either side, and some of them would seem to be better pairs than Avraham/Bilaam. Just coming to mind is Avraham/Nimrod, Yaakov/Eisav, Moshe/Pharoah, or even Moshe/Bilaam. So I'm wondering, why Avraham and Bilaam? Are they considered the epitome of these traits, and is that the only reason that they are paired?

More importantly, do any of the classical commentaries discuss this?

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I wrote about this topic last year on my blog: shesileizeisim.blogspot.com/2012/07/… –  LazerA Jun 25 '13 at 18:13
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2 Answers 2

A few points.

1 - Yabia Omer authored by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Grobart questions why does it say the disciples of Avraham and Bilaam and not Avraham and Bilaam themselves. He answers that Bilaam looked to an outsider like a complete Tzadik however he was a fraud. The only way to tell the difference was by their students and that is why it says the disciples of Avraham and Bilaam.

2 - Eitz haDaas Tov authored by Rabbi Chaim Vital says that Bilaam was a grandson of Lavan who was a grandson of Nachor, Avraham's brother.

3 - Neim Zemiros Yisrael authored by Rabbi Yitzchak Gershtenkorn mentions a similarity between Avraham and Bilaam based on a Mechilta in Beshalach. Both Avraham and Bilaam woke up early and saddled their donkeys.

Based on the above I would propose that the Mishna is showing a difference between family members, which would explain why Avraham/Nimrod, Moshe/Pharoah, and Moshe/Bilaam were not chosen for this comparison. Regarding Yaakov/Eisav - although when Eisav was younger it was unclear that he was evil, as he got older it was clear that he was evil. That leaves us with Avraham/Bilaam who to the world they seemed alike, Bilaam even imitated Avraham by getting up early and saddling his donkey, and they came from the same Mispacha and look how far apart they were, - therefore the comparison.

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I am actually wondering as to what type of Yeshiva did Bilaam have that he had students? –  Gershon Gold Jun 20 '13 at 18:30
    
Good point! .... –  Yehoshua Jun 21 '13 at 13:55
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  • The Rambam, in his Commentary on the Mishna, says that both Avraham and Bilaam's characteristics are explicit in the Torah. This could explain why they were chosen.

  • The Tiferet Yisroel, in his commentary on the Mishna, says that the mishna is saying that this applies even to a non-Jew. That's why it chooses Avraham, because the students of Moshe have to keep the whole Torah, while a non-Jew need only follow the path of Avraham in order to "eat in this world and get a portion in the world-to-come".

    This doesn't necessarily explain why Bilaam was specifically chosen, but he does go on to say that Bilaam exhibited 3 characteristics which are (individually) the cause of every sin.

    Perhaps he, like the Rambam, is saying that we see Bilaam guilty of all these 3 acts.

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