Coveting Wealth

Balak, the Moabite king, hired Bilam, the Heathen prophet, to curse the Jewish people.  He feared they would encroach on his territory while on their way to conquer the Land of Cana’an.  Balak sent two separate delegations of messengers to hire Bilam, but he rebuffed them, as G‑d had instructed him not to go with Balak’s messengers. They entreated him to go with them, promising him great honor and everything he would care to ask for.  Bilam replied:
“If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of G‑d, my G‑d, to do anything small or great.”


Rashi observes that speaking of a “houseful of gold and silver” revealed Bilam’s greed. In Rashi’s words: “He had a greedy soul and coveted others’ money.”


A question is raised when we contrast Bilam’s mention of gold and silver with that of a great Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Yossi ben Kisma, who made a similar reference to gold and silver.  There is no suggestion that Rabbi Yossi coveted gold and silver too.


In Ethics of the Fathers (6:9) we read:


Said Rabbi Yossi the son of Kisma: Once, I was traveling and I encountered a man. He greeted me and I returned his greetings. Said he to me: "Rabbi, where are you from?" Said I to him: "From a great city of sages and scholars, am I." Said he to me: "Rabbi, would you like to dwell with us in our place? I will give you a million dinars of gold, precious stones and pearls." Said I to him: "If you were to give me all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world, I would not dwell anywhere but in a place of Torah. Indeed, so is written in the book of psalms by David the king of Israel: `I prefer the Torah of Your mouth over thousands in gold and silver' (Psalms 118:72).” 


What was the crucial difference between Bilam’s mention of gold and silver and what the great Sage Rabbi Yossi said?  They both mentioned gold and silver and they both spurned the offer of such wealth and riches to follow G‑d’s will. Yet Bilam’s mere mention of it was interpreted by our Sages as a sign of his incredible greed, whereas Rabbi Yossi’s mention of it was understood as a repudiation of riches. Why do our Sages draw opposite conclusions from almost identical statements?


Three Answers

First, as some commentators point out, Rabbi Yossi only mentioned gold and silver in response to the man’s offer of great riches if he would relocate.  Bilam, on the other hand, introduced the idea himself.   Balak’s representatives hadn’t offered gold and silver to him. The fact that he raised the topic strongly suggests that he really craved the gold and silver. It was only because of his fear of disobeying G‑d’s express command that he rejected the gold and silver.


This first answer is somewhat problematic.  Although king Balak’s messengers did not mention gold or silver specifically, they did offer Bilam “honor and everything that he would ask for.” That certainly suggested the possibility of gold, silver and even more treasures. 


A second answer, found in a Midrashic work, sees Rabbi Yossi’s mention of gold and silver as obviously rhetorical and hyperbolic.  In point of fact it was impossible that they would be able to give him “all the silver, gold, precious stones and pearls in the world.” However, when Bilam spoke of Balak giving him “his household of gold and silver” that was within Balak’s power to do. Bilam was not exaggerating; Bilam’s true desire was to obtain that gold and silver.


The Best Answer: Bilam Syndrome?

A third answer may be based on the difference in how they expressed themselves. Bilam said “If Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of G‑d, my G‑d, to do anything small or great.” Notice that Bilam did not say it in the affirmative: “if Balak will give me his houseful of silver and gold I will still follow G‑d’s word.” By phrasing it in the negative Bilam implied that but for G‑d’s clear command against it, he might very well have consented to receive the gold and silver. It was only his fear of violating G‑d’s directive that quashed his desire for the riches he coveted.


By contrast R. Yossi does not say, “Even if you were to give me all the gold, etc., I cannot live in your city.” Instead he accentuated the positive, that gold and silver notwithstanding, he could only live in a place of Torah. He made it clear that his main interest was Torah and that it was worth more than all the world’s wealth to him. Rather than saying that he was compelled to reject the other person’s offer, he stated the positive about living in a place of Torah.


This third answer provides us with a powerful psychological and spiritual lesson about the way we demonstrate our priorities. When we have two options, either follow G‑d’s command, or do what is selfish, when one makes the correct choice it can manifest itself in two ways.


First, we can decide to do the right thing, but reluctantly. We would really like to be able to do the selfish thing but we feel compelled to restrain ourselves. This suggests that we may be tainted with Bilam’s Syndrome. As was the case with Bilam, this personality type will attempt every method possible to wriggle out of the “straightjacket” with which G‑d clads us. Even if we acquiesce at first, we retain the desire to revert to our base cravings.


In the alternative, we can decide to follow Rabbi Yossi’s example where the appeal of gold and silver pales by comparison with the wealth of Torah and Mitzvos.  To Rabbi Yossi it was no contest; he was simply not enticed by the gold and silver even though he truly appreciated its temporal value.


The Final Answer: Preeminence of Torah Study

A fourth approach to the question of the difference between Bilam and Rabbi Yossi’s references to gold and silver can be offered based on the Rebbe’s  analysis  of the story of Rabbi Yossi:


Rabbi Yossi rejected the proposal that he become a rabbi in another town because he was single minded about his study of Torah. Generally speaking, Torah must be augmented by good deeds and time and energy spent influencing others to perform the Mitzvos. However, Rabbi Yossi teaches us that the emphasis on Mitzvos over Torah study is not because Torah study is less significant than other ideals of Judaism. On the contrary, Torah study is the greatest Mitzvah of them all.  When one performs a Mitzvah, it is comparable to wearing a garment that envelops the individual. By contrast, when one studies Torah, the Torah is digested, absorbed and internalized within the person. Since, Torah is Divine wisdom, and, as Maimonides states, G‑d and His wisdom are one, Torah study creates a unity with G‑d that cannot be achieved with any other Mitzvah.


Rabbi Yossi wanted his fellow traveler to realize the preeminent value of Torah study. He referred to gold and silver but not because there was a contest between the Torah and material wealth. As the Rebbe explained it, R. Yossi was actually referring to the most appropriate use of material wealth: doing Mitzvos, such as tzedakah. Even so, Rabbi Yossi made the point that while wealth can enable Mitzvos it cannot match the importance of Torah study.


We can now understand that Rabbi Yossi demonstrated that, for him, gold and silver meant the ability to change the world by using one’s material resources for good. Rabbi Yossi went to the next level, however, and underscored that Torah study surpassed all forms of gold and silver, even including in their spiritual dimension.


Application to the Present

In the present day and age we must forego some of our pleasure and delight in Torah study to change the world— using the gold and silver of Judaism.  At the same time, we must prepare ourselves for the day when the entire world will be inundated with Torah knowledge.  We must do so by devoting more of our time and resources to Torah study, particularly the inner dimension of Torah that deals with our relationship with G‑d. This study will condition us to be receptive to the phenomenal mystical teachings of Torah that will be revealed by Moshiach in the Messianic Age.


In the words of Isaiah, as cited by Maimonides is his ultimate description of the Messianic Age: “The entire world will be filled with the knowledge of G‑d as the water covers the sea.”


However, in that time we won’t have to forgo the gold and silver for Torah study; we will be able to possess ultimate Torah knowledge as well as gold and silver in all of its dimensions.


This, indeed, is how Maimonides (in the very last paragraph of his Mishneh Torah) describes the future Messianic Age: that it will be a time of material wealth and abundance. He then concludes by citing the foregoing verse from Isaiah that the world will be inundated with Torah knowledge. At that time we will have both gold and silver and Torah knowledge, with the knowledge that Torah knowledge is superior to even the most sublime understanding of gold and silver.
Moshiach Matters
When the earth was cursed at the time of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, many flourishing fruit trees became barren; thenceforth entire species of trees brought forth only brambles and thorns. The Talmud teaches, however, that all of these barren trees will eventually produce luscious fruit and that those who behold this wonder will sing joyously in the times of Moshiach.
(Alshich on Psalm 96)