Rather than starting with the parasha, I’m going to start with a well-known mishna:
The Bartenura explains where in the text of the Torah we can derive these characteristics:
The Maharal asks some questions on this mishna:
We can understand why Avraham is the paragon of good, but why these three characteristics? What happened to his חסד? Isn’t that Avraham’s defining characteristic? And why choose Balaam as the antithesis of Avraham? Aren’t there worse villians in תנ״ך?
To answer the second question—why oppose Balaam to Avraham—we have to realize that the Torah itself invites the comparison:
Both arise early in the morning and saddle their own donkeys:
Both are described as being accompanied by two נערים as well.
Both are associated with blessing and cursing:
Both, at the end of their respective missions, are described with the verbs קם, לך and שב. These are the only two psukim in Torah that use all three.
Even the appearance of מלאך ה׳ is almost unique to these two incidents; it appears here and with הגר by the well and with משה by the burning bush. And here as with אברהם the angel seems to override ה׳'s command:
Rabbi Leibtag points out as well that they are both from Aram Naharaim:
Of course, this just begs the question, why does the Torah make this connection? I think the key connection is what we just mentioned: both are from Aram. And Aram is more than a place in תנ״ך; it has a symbolic significance. The Gemara connects Balaam to another famous Aramean:
Both get to speak to ה׳ in a vision at night:
What does it mean to say that Balaam is a descendant of Lavan? This is a midrashic identification. I don’t think Lavan was literally Balaam’s father; the Balaam story takes place some 260 years later. They are spiritual father and son. Lavan is always called הארמי:
The commentators, based on חז״ל, say that ארמי should be read as רמאי, a swindler:
Lavan of course is the quintessential swindler, trying to cheat Yaakov dozens of times. Balaam is seen as a swindler as well, promising far more than he can deliver:
And in truth, Balaam is attempting the ultimate con: to cheat G-d Himself, to fool Him into allowing him (Balaam) to curse Israel.
But Avraham? How can we connect him to רמאות? To investigate this further, I want to talk about evil twins:
We see each of the אבות as epitomizing each of these three legs of of the world. יעקב serves ה׳ through תורה, the power of the intellect. יצחק serves ה׳ through עבודה, spirituality. אברהם serves ה׳ though גמילות חסדים, interaction with society.
And the Torah gives each of them a counterpart that misuses that power. עשו is seen in the eyes of חז״ל as the progenitor of Rome, using the intellect and technology to conquer the world. ישמעאל (not to put too political a spin on it) is the progenitor of those who are dedicated to the service of G-d in order to kill and destroy others. But who is the counterpart of אברהם?
We quote יהושוע in the seder every year:
Why is נחור paired with אברהם? We have no stories of נחור in תנ״ך. But we do know of his place: (בראשית כד:י) ארם נהרים אל עיר נחור. And he is progenitor of the line of רמאים: בתואל who tries to cheat אליעזר, לבן the ur-swindler, and בלעם of our mishna and our parasha.
This pairing tells us something very important about חסד. True חסד requires us to deeply understand our fellow man, to understand what he needs and what he wants. Helping someone who does not want help, simply because we think he needs it, is no חסד. That kind of empathy is a sort of social intelligence that not everyone has; it’s different from the problem-solving “intelligence” that we usually think about. There are those who are severely lacking in this social intelligence; that is what we call “autistic spectrum disorder”. But there are those who are truly gifted in it.
But having social intelligence does not make one a good person. To be a good swindler, a true רמאי, one has to understand other people, know what they need and what they want. It’s exactly the same skill as the בעל חסד. And that’s why נחור is the progenitor to the anti-Avraham. Intelligence of all kinds, including the social intelligence, is a gift from ה׳. What we need to learn is to use those gifts in way that fulfills the will of ה׳. That why the mishna talks about being a תלמיד of אברהם. The three characteristics represent three aspects of the יצר הרע that we have to overcome:
And that is teachable.
If we look at the mishna in context, it is giving us lessons on how to use תורה, עבודהand גמילות חסדים in the manner of the אבות and not like their evil twins:
We have to be aware that תורה, עבודהand גמילות חסדים don’t come easily or automatically. We are given the tools to allow the world to stand, but those same tools can be used to undermine it as well.