A quick thought on this week's Torah portion in which we find Bilam, the
infamous sorcerer, attempting again and again to curse the Jewish people.
His persistence intrigues us. Bilam first takes up a position with Balak,
the king of Moav, on a high promontory from where he could see---and then
curse-the entire Jewish nation. Yet his curses were turned by Hashem into
wonderful blessings. Bilam then moved to a different vantage point from
which he could only see the edge of the Jewish encampment, but once again
his wicked plans were foiled and his curses became blessings. Finally, Bilam
turned to the wilderness and attempted to call down some additional curses.
Why did Bilam's frustration cause him to change his vantage point,
increasingly narrowing his focus on the nation each time his curses were
A quick look between the lines of the Parsha brings Bilam's character into
sharp relief. Clearly, he had a bloated ego and an insatiable appetite for
flattery. People who seek constant approval and adulation often tend to
disparage and humiliate others. Since they suffer from diminished self-worth
and feelings of inadequacy, they deprecate others in an attempt to pump up
their own egos. Like a see-saw, they can only go up when others go down.
Bilam epitomized this characteristic. At first, he wanted to curse the
entire people and anticipated a huge boost to his ego if he succeeded. When
he failed in that endeavor, he narrowed his focus to only part of the
nation, hoping that by highlighting the shortcomings of at least some of the
people, he would gain relief and importance. After failing again, he tried
to zone in on specific faults in the Jewish people and by talking in
generalities about some of their setbacks. That too was ineffectual.
Two veteran elderly Gerrer Chassidim were engaged in a deep philosophical
discussion about the chosen people. They stood at the front of the large
Bais Medrash in the Eastern European town of Gur. One strokes his beard
thoughtfully while declaring to his friend, "Simcha Bunim, we are both well
into our eighties and have come into contact with all segments of the Jewish
people. Let's reflect for a moment about the spiritual identity of the
millions of Jews that live in the world. Who are Hashem's chosen and most
beloved children? Of course, it is only religious Jews who believe in the
Divine revelation of Sinai and cherish the Torah's commandments". His friend
nodded sagaciously as the dialogue continues.
"Well Simcha Bunim, lets develop this thought a little further. Amongst
religious Jews there are of course many different divisions and segments. We
have the various Sephardic communities, Ashkenazi communities, Modern
orthodox and of course the Chassidic Jews that follow the traditions of the
saintly Baal Shem Tov. Really now!" he exclaimed, "who does Hashem truly
cherish? Of course', he announced triumphantly, 'it's we the hassidim. All
other religious Jews are practicing the rituals robotically. They haven't
tasted the joy, warmth and fervor that Hassidic practice has to offer. Only
we understand, appreciate and practice Hashem's laws with true love'!
Well now" he continued, "let's analyze this one step further. Amongst us
hassidim, you and I know how many sects and groups there are that think they
have captured the message of the saintly Baal Shem Tov. But they are really
emphasizing the frills and traditions without understanding or appreciating
his essential teachings. Only in Gur have we plumbed the depths of the
saintly Baal Shem Tov teachings. So now, who does Hashem have in his whole
wide world that are His very own? It is only we, the Gerrer Chassidim !
'Well now', he continued to muse, 'let's look behind us at this entire Bais
Medrash. You and I know that all the Chassidim that are present are
greenhorns; they are too young to have really savored and appreciated the
depths of our Gerer sacred tradition. Only we, the oldest amongst all the
Chassidim, that sat at the feet of the saintly Chidushei Harim, Sfas Emes
and Imrei Emes fully understand and appreciate the teachings of Hassidus at
its very source'. His voice was becoming high pitched and his hands were
flaying wildly as he reached closer to his final conclusion. Well now, who
is Hashem left with for his very own amongst the whole wide world? It is but
you and I that are privileged to be on the highest pedestal in Hashem's
loving embrace. Well now', he continued. as he clutched the lapels of Simcha
Bunim's jacket, 'between you and me you know who is inferior, its quite
clear that you are a blithering fool"!
This humorous anecdote reflects our essential message. When we attempt to
put others down we would do well to analyze what is motivating our negative
behavior. More often than we are simply engaging in an exercise of self
promotion that prompts us to highlight other people's perceived flaws and
failings in order to artificially inflate our own. We would be far better
off recognizing other people's bright spots and positive traits. In the
process we will inevitably enrich our environment and community and ennoble
ourselves in the process.