Bilaam Harasha is considered to be the archetype of a person with bad midos. The Mishna in Avos describes him as having an ‘ayin raah‘ (he looked upon people in a negative way), a ‘ruach gevoah‘ (he was arrogant), and a ‘nefesh rechava ’ (he was greedy).
‘Nefesh Rechava’ refers specifically to Bilaam’s love for money; the commentaries derive his greediness from his response to the request of Balak’s ministers for him to curse the Jewish people. They said, “…So said Balak Ben Tsipoor, please do not refuse from coming to me. I will greatly honor you and everything that you say I will do, please go and curse this nation for me.” “Bilaam replied and said to Balak’s servants, if Balak will give me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of Hashem, my G-d, to do small or great. ” Superficially it would see that we learn Bilaam’s greediness from the large sum of money that he alluded to in his refusal to go against Hashem’s words.
However, the commentaries point out that this cannot be true, because there is another example in Chazal where a genuine tzadik used a similar expression to that of Bilaam. The Mishna in Avos describes the account of the great Tanna, Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma, who was approached by a wealthy man to leave his place of Torah to dwell in another city that was lacking in talmidei chachamim. The man offered him an immense amount of money in his attempt to persuade Rebbe Yosse to come to his city. Rebbe Yosse replied, ‘if you give me all the silver, gold and precious pearls in the world I will only live in a place of Torah.” Rebbe Yosse mentioned an even greater amount of money than Bilaam and there is no indication at all that he showed any sign of greediness in his reply. What is the difference between Bilaam’s response and that of Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma ?
On deeper analysis it seems that there is a significant difference between Bilaam and Rebbe Yosse ben Kisma. When the man tried to persuade Rebbe Yosse to stay in his city he promised him a great amount of money, and, in response, Rebbe Yosse replied that no amount of money could make him leave a place of Torah. It was appropriate for Rebbe Yosse to refer to money because the man directly mentioned it himself. In contrast, the ministers of Balak never made any mention of money in their attempts to convince Bilaam to curse the Jewish people. Rather, they said that Balak offered to “greatly honor” him. Bilaam replied by saying that even a great amount of money would not enable him to curse the Jews if Hashem did not allow it. From Bilaam’s mention of money we see two things: Firstly that money was something that was so prevalent in his mind that he brought it up even when no-one else had made any mention of it. Secondly, on a deeper level, we see that he related to the concept of “honor” as meaning, ‘financial benefit’ - to Bilaam, honor and money were the same thing. This proves his love for money, because a person who does not love money will not think that it is equivalent to honor.
A difficulty still remains with this explanation. It would have seemed that someone who loves money would not necessarily consider that its main benefit is honor, rather people want money so that they can make materialistic acquisitions. Having money enables a person to satisfy his desires for physical pleasures such as a nice house, a fast car, good food, and lots of vacations. Given this, why did Bilaam equate honor with money? There are two possible motivations behind a person’s love of money: One is an attachment to gashmius, whereby he wants money to fulfill his physical desires. The second is that having a great deal of money can enable a person to receive honor and respect from others. This is not essentially a physical desire, rather it emanates from a spiritual yetser hara. This means that everyone is looking for some kind of meaning - honor is one of the main ways that a starved soul can try to derive some satisfaction. In western society today, having money is probably the greatest way of receiving honor.
This spiritual form of desire for money is much more dangerous than the physical love of money. When a person wants money in order to enjoy certain luxuries, once he has them, he may be satiated - this is because the body is finite and can be satisfied. However, if the desire for honor is a ‘spiritual’ desire, then the person will never be satisfied no matter how much money he acquires - for him, money gives him honor, but his soul will instinctively crave more honor as a source of meaning. Consequently he will try to fulfill this desire by acquiring more money, but will constantly feel dissatisfied. For this person, money is his means to gaining honor but he will always crave more honor, and therefore he will always want more money to satisfy this desire for honor.
From Bilaam’s equating money with honor, it is clear that Balaam’s ‘nefesh rechava’ caused him to have the more pernicious kind of love for money - the kind that emanates from a desire for honor. The Nesivos Shalom zt”l discusses how damaging this can be to a person - in the aforementioned Mishna in Avos the talmidim of Bilaam are compared with those of Avraham Avinu. Towards the end of the Mishna it asks what the difference is between the two groups. It explains that “the students of Avraham eat in Olam Hazeh and inherit Olam Haba… but the students of Bilaam Harasha inherit Gehinnom and go down to the well of destruction. ” What is the double lashon used with regard to Bilaam’s talmidim, of ‘Gehinnom’ and ‘well of destrcution’? The Nesivos Shalom explains that the ‘well of destruction’ refers to Olam Haba, whereas ‘Gehinnom’ actually refers to Olam Hazeh - the talmidim of Bilaam do not only experience great pain in the next world, they also suffer in this world. They are so concerned about gaining more acquisitions and more honor that they can never attain satisfaction in their lives to the extent that they live Gehinnom even in Olam Hazeh!
This explanation teaches an obvious lesson that the relentless drive for money can never provide a person with true satisfaction. A certain amount of money may be a necessary means to helping people attain the end of a meaningful life, but it is essential to remain vigilant that it remains as a ‘means’ and does not become the ultimate goal in itself. Instead, occupying one’s time with developing a relationship with Hashem can provide the only source of satisfaction that leaves a person truly satisfied.