The Seesaw Principle
If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. This was apparently the
philosophy of Balak, King of Moab, when he was faced with the vast multitude
of the Jewish people approaching his lands. Terrorstricken, he sent
messengers to summon Bilam, the famous sorcerer, to come to Moab and curse
the Jewish people.
Balak led Bilam to a high promontory from which they saw the entire Jewish
encampment. Balak gleefully rubbed his hands together in anticipation of
Bilam's potent curses, but to his astonishment, blessings rather than curses
poured forth from Bilam's mouth.
Frustrated, Balak took Bilam to a different vantage point from which he
could only see the edge of the encampment. Once again, Balak implored Bilam
to curse the Jewish people, and once again, he could only speak blessing
rather then curses.
Finally, Bilam turned to face the Wilderness and managed to utter some
vague, ineffectual curses.
The commentators are puzzled. Why did Bilam repeatedly narrow his focus on
the Jewish people after each failure to curse them?
A quick look into this week's Torah portion brings Bilam's character into
sharp relief. His most striking features were his bloated ego and his
insatiable hunger for flattery. People seeking constant selfaggrandizement
generally tend to disparage and humiliate others. Whether consciously or
subconsciously, they feel superior only when they diminish other people. By
putting others down, their own egos are by contrast inflated. They view life
like a seesaw, with themselves on one side and the world on the other. If
the other side goes down, they go up.
Balak understood this aspect of Bilam's character, and he played on it. At
first, he brought Bilam to a point where he could see the entire people. If
Bilam could curse and disparage an entire people, what a surge his ego would
enjoy. But he was unsuccessful. Conceding failure, he narrowed his focus to
only part of the people, concentrating on individuals in the hope that their
shortcomings would be more glaring. Once again he was unsuccessful, and
therefore, he narrowed his focus even more by cursing the people even though
he was unable to highlight any particular fault. But even these curses were
ineffectual, because Hashem protects the righteous.
Two businessmen were once sitting in a bar, discussing the state of the
"You know," said the first man, "if you really think about it, there are
really only two classes of people in the world - our countrymen and
foreigners. And we both know that all foreigners are totally worthless."
"Of course," said the second man. "But even among our countrymen there is
clear division into two classes. The city dwellers and the peasants."
"Exactly," said the first man. "And we both know that peasants are worse
than useless. Only city dwellers are worth anything at all. But even among
city dwellers, there are two classes - intellectuals and businessmen."
"I totally agree," said the second man. "Intellectuals are pointyheaded
fools. Totally useless. Only businessmen have any worth."
"But not all businessman are worthy," said the first man. "Plenty of them
are nothing more than bumbling fools."
"I agree," said the second man. "In fact, if you really think about it. You
can probably rule out just about every businessman on one count or another.
I guess, that just leaves us with me and you, my friend."
"Exactly," said the first man, "and just between you and me, we both know
perfectly well that you're nothing but a windbag."
In our own lives, we may sometimes find ourselves bring inadvertently
critical of other people or even entire ethnic or racial groups. Perhaps we
would do well to look into ourselves to find the source of these sentiments.
Why in the world should we be flirting with meanspiritedness and bigotry?
Why should we be so eager to highlight other people's flaws? More likely
than not, these are sign of latent insecurities which mistakenly lead us to
think we can secure ourselves better by undermining others. In actuality,
however, tearing other people down only diminishes and demeans us, while
looking at them in a positive light enhances our spirits and brings us the
serenity and satisfaction of recognizing our own true worth.
Text Copyright © 2010 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and Torah.org.
Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.