My wife’s first cousin and his family live in Cleveland. We have been visiting them on average once a year for about 16 years. We love visiting Cleveland and we’ve done a bunch of neat things there. But every time we were at the Great Lakes Science Center I would look longingly at the building right next door. RIGHT NEXT DOOR! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I always wanted to visit but for a variety of reasons, it just never worked out. (I mean, mostly the reasons are because my kids either didn’t want to go, or were too frum to go, and my wife said that I had to be “with the family” on a “family vacation.” I know she was right, but UHHHHHHHH. It’s right next door!)
This past Shabbos and Sunday we were again in Cleveland but a few things are different. My kids are older. They don’t need to be entertained the same way anymore. And this wasn’t a “family vacation” per se. We just went to Rami and Chani’s for Shabbos. And we didn’t have plans anyway. So this past Sunday I had a chance to go to, finally, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And it was a great time.
I was nostalgic seeing Bon Jovi’s long coat from the New Jersey Tour. I really appreciated seeing the original sheet where Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica worked out the lyrics to “Enter Sandman.” But I think I was most fascinated by the exhibits on the actual induction ceremonies themselves.
You might know that when people are inducted into the Hall of Fame there is a performance and a ceremony and, as is common at awards ceremonies, the awardees have a chance to share some remarks. It’s expected for people to thank their parents and thank their managers and their spouses in those remarks. But one particular set of comments caught my attention. Run-DMC was inducted in 2009. Reverend Run (Joseph Simmons) started his remarks by saying, “So much help; so many smart people.” He put all of the attention for his moment on other people, including the mother of the late Jam Master Jay. DMC (Daryl McDaniels) began with, “Never let your circumstances define who you are.” And then he talked about how blessed he was that his birth mother gave him up so he could be loved by his “real mom.” He talked about the incredible power of loving a child and how that love saved him. It was truly moving. And it was quite impressive how they were both able to look at terrible circumstances and find hope and inspiration.
One of the unusual aspects of this week’s Torah reading is that is almost doesn’t involve the Jews at all. Or perhaps more accurately, it doesn’t involve them as the subject of the story but rather the object of the story. For most of this narrative, it’s not about what the Jewish people do, but rather what is being done to them.
BalaK the King hires BilaaM the Magician () curse the Jewish people camped at his border. But Hashem intervenes and saves the Jews. (In this week’s parshah podcast, Rabbi Dovid Katz has an extremely thought-provoking insight as to why Hashem removed Bilaam’s free will and forced him to say blessings and not curses, when Hashem could just as easily have just let Bilaam say those curses but not allow them any efficacy. If you don’t listen to Rabbi Katz’s podcast, you should.)
There is a Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (5:22) which compares people who are “Students of Avraham Avinu” to people who are “Students of Bilaam the Wicked. People who have a “good eye” (generosity), “a humble temperament” (humility), and a “lowly spirit” (ascetic, who does not run after pleasures) are a Student of Avraham. People who are stingy, conceited, and hedonistic are Students of Bilaam. What’s interesting to me is that the Mishnah chooses to compare Bilaam and Avraham and not, say, Bilaam to Moshe.
In many ways, Bilaam plays Bizzaro to Moshe’s Superman. (What do you mean you don’t get that reference? Ok, um, Bilaam is Venom to Moshe’s Spiderman.) Moshe’s prophecy is of a level such that he is able to tell people, “Wait here while I go speak to G-d and find out what he says in this matter.” And to some extent Bilaam can do that to! Even Eliyahu and Shmuel can’t do that. Moshe identified himself way back as a person who “has a heavy tongue,” meaning he’s bad at public speaking but Bilaam seems to be a man of exquisite rhetorical abilities. Moshe is the person identified as “more humble than any man,” and Bilaam seems to famous for his seeking glory. And besides all of that, Bilaam and Moshe were contemporaries, and according to the Rabbinic/Midrashic tradition, Moshe kills Bilaam in battle. So for all these reasons it would have made more sense to contrast Moshe and Bilaam rather than Avraham and Bilaam. What did the author of the Mishnah see that compelled him to set up this contrast?
It seems to me there is a fantastic moment of divergence between the life of Avraham and the life of Bilaam. Everyone will remember that after the angels came to visit and heal him, they announce to Avraham Hashem’s intent to destroy the city of S’dom. After hearing the news that a bad thing will happen to bad people Avraham neither gives thanks nor rejoices. Instead, of course, Avraham stands on hills surrounding the valley, looks down on the metropolis and pleads with G-d to spare them. Perhaps there is a small number of righteous people still in the town that can help them all improve? Perhaps there is a small number of people whose good deeds compensate for the evil of the others? But to no avail. The city was totally evil. Lot could be extracted but the rest was cancerous.
Bilaam on the other hand, stands above the Jewish people and hopes to bring evil upon them. The sages of the Talmud tell us that his plan was to bring an ayin hara — the evil eye — on us. That means he sought out that which was wrong with us in order to call attention to it in heaven. How amazingly anti-Avraham is that? Avraham looked out over S’dom and hoped to find things that were right and Bilaam looked out over the Jewish people and searched for things that were wrong! This is what I think the Mishnah was trying to draw our attention to.
These traits of humility and generosity and contentment, which the Mishnah is encouraging, might be branches of this core difference between Avraham and Bilaam — seeking out the good or seeking out the problem. And it seems to me that the Mishnah is being intentional when it use the phrase “Students of Avraham.” This is a mindset which can be learned. You can train yourself in the habit of seeking out the 50 tzaddikim in the Metropolis of Evil.
I think if you have a chance, you should totally visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I think we should all practice, and get better at, seeing the good in people and circumstances. And I think by the Mishnah’s criteria, Run-DMC are Students of Avraham Avinu.