The famous Mishnah in Avot teaches that whoever has an evil eye, haughty spirit, and a strong desire to pursue pleasure and materialism is a disciple of Bilaam. In contrast, whoever has a good eye, humble spirit, and self-restraint is a disciple of Avraham (Ch. 5). Let us stop for a moment and ask ourselves why Avraham and Bilaam are chosen by the Tanna to represent the two ends of the spectrum. Wouldn't Moshe or Aharon also be a perfectly suitable example of a mentor of these three positive traits? And wouldn't Pharaoh or Lavan also serve as a mentor of these negative traits?
The fact is that the very names Avraham and Bilaam already suggest a contrast. In Hebrew, the name Bilaam communicates the concept of bli am – without a nation. The name Avraham, on the other hand, means Av Hamon Goyim – the father of many nations. Avraham's salient traits – as enumerated above – may well be the keys to his ultimate success in "nation building." Bilaam, on the other hand, embodies the power not of building, but of destroying.
King Solomon said: לתאוה יבקש נפרד משלי יח' א) ') Rabeinu Yonah explains (in Shaarei Teshuva) that when someone in a relationship is seeking materialism, he is essentially seeking to be a loner. When relationships are built on both parties' shared interests in pursuing pleasure and materialism, the relationship can only last as long as the fun lasts. Once the fun ceases, the relationship will most likely wither. Furthermore, when one is focused on oneself, the needs of the other person are easily overlooked. The only relationships that will last are those where both parties share goals and life ambitions. Thus, we can see how Bilaam's emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure works against any long-term bond or union. Avraham was the epitome of kindness, going out of his way to live in a desert with an open tent to all passersby in order to be there when people needed him the most – and without expecting anything in return. Only with this ethic can a nation can be built and preserved.
Another tendency that can destroy any relationship is haughtiness, which stems from an exaggerated sense of self-importance. If a husband (or wife) believes that he is greater then his spouse, this can only cause distance between them. It is important to feel important, but not to feel more important than others. While Bilaam is the archetype of haughtiness and self-importance, Avraham is just the opposite. He would ask visitors who wished to thank him for his food and hospitality to thank G-d instead.
Bilaam wanted to harm the Jews in the desert by unleashing his "Evil Eye" against them, as we will explain. But he was unable to do so. וירא ישראל שוכן לשבטיו ...מה טובו אוהלך יעקב משכנתיך ישראל )כד':ה ') When he saw the entrances of the Israelite tents not facing one other, he proclaimed: "how great are your tents, Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel." What was it about the arrangement of the Israelite tents that compelled Bilaam to utter a blessing instead of the curse he wanted to deliver?
We can answer this question with the previous idea. One risks arousing the evil eye if he boasts about his success to another person. We cannot underestimate the damage caused in any community because of boasting about one's successes or possessions to the ones who don't have much of either. With all his evil heart, Bilaam wanted to inflict this fate on our nation. He wanted to point a finger at the Jews and claim that they, too, flaunt and boast about their success. But upon seeing their tent openings not facing one another, he realized that no-one is trying to show off his standard of living. Those people blessed with wealth followed Avraham's great example of using all the excess resources to help others. Let us follow in the ways of our great Forefather Avraham, and cultivate in ourselves a good and generous eye, a humble spirit, and the self-restraint that keeps us from self-destructive over-indulgence.