Sometimes one of the hardest things in life is not to care about what other people think of me. When I was growing up throughout elementary school, I was the smallest kid in my class. We used to take class pictures by height, and I always stood at the end of the line. As a result my vertically challenged place in life was so deeply ingrained in my childhood, that when I actually sprouted up in high school to a pretty average male height of 5’ 10”, I still always saw myself as shorter than everyone else. In fact, to this day I am continually surprised every time I notice that I am taller than someone else is.
Some of you are probably saying, “This would be a good opener to a discussion of the Torah portion two weeks ago (Shelakh) when the scouts felt like grasshoppers in their own eyes and saw everyone else in the land of Canaan as giants,” and you would have a point – but it isn’t about the scouts. It’s about the natural human condition in which we all find ourselves, where what other people think, and say about us matters more we know it should.
We are all this way. My wife puts on a dress and then asks me, “How do I look in this dress?” But it I tell her she looks great in it, she doesn’t believe me anyway and would really love to have someone else (anyone else I suspect) to ask the same question because an “outside opinion” would carry so much more weight and mean so much more than anything I could ever say.
Sharon knows her child is a fabulous talent in music without anyone having to tell her, but when they do she beams with pride and joy as if their relative value just jumped up significantly in the reflected light of the outside compliment.
After all, how else would “outside consultants” make all the money they do, if it weren’t for the fact that human beings put more value in the opinions of those who are disinterested parties than they do anyone who is too close to the scene.
I suppose that’s why this week’s portion is so powerful. It’s because Bilaam was not Jewish and he still said nice things about us. Kind of like why that best seller of several years ago, The Gifts of the Jews was such a big hit among Jews – a non-Jew wrote it! It’s one thing to pat ourselves on the back for all the Nobel Prize winners, inventors and innovators who have been Jewish over the years, but its so much sweeter and more satisfying when someone who isn’t Jewish does it.
Bilaam is a hired spiritual hit man. Balak, King of Moab hires him to curse the Israelites on the presumption that he has the power to make his words really matter. Instead, as the story plays out, he ends up praising Israel with the famous words of ma tovu ohalekha yaakov mishkenotekha yisrael – “How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.
So moved were our ancestors that this non-Jewish prophet would see us as beautiful and worthy of praise, that they plucked his famous phrase out of the Torah and enjoined future generations of Jews to recite these same words as a prayer, every time we enter into a sanctuary for services.
To have an outsider recognize our value, our beauty, our communal relationships, and the passing of our traditions and heritage from one generation to the next became the ultimate validation of our spiritual worth.
Wee do care what others think and say about us. We can’t help it. I suppose the greatest challenge in life is to live our lives in such a way so that when the end comes, people say of us and our work, ma tovu ohalekha yaakov…How beautiful are your dwelling places O Israel.