Keeping Up With the Joneses – Parashat Balak 2011

Tomorrow morning, we will read the story of Balak ben Tzipor, a king of an ancient people called Moab.  Balak witnesses a nation of former slaves called Israel inflict crushing military defeats upon the nations surrounding his own.  He assumes that engaging the Israelites in battle will be futile, so when Israel approaches his borders, Balak tries a different strategy: He hires a prophet named Bilaam ben Be’or to curse the Israelites.  You see, at the time, Bilaam was famous for his ability to harm people by cursing them.  But when Bilaam tries to curse the Israelites, he ends up blessing them instead.  One of these blessings, which is now incorporated in our daily liturgy, reads as follows:

Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’akov mishkenotekha Yisrael/ How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!

At first glance, this is a weird blessing.  Sure, praise Israel’s revolutionary ethical and religious values, their might, even their Semitic good looks, but what could possibly be so good about Israel’s tents, their homes, that make them worthy of special mention in a blessing?

The rabbis of the Talmud (B. Bava Batra 60a) offer a fascinating explanation:

Ra’ah she-ein pit’hei ohaleihen mekhuvanin zeh la-zeh. Amar: re’uyin halalu she-tishreh aleihem shekhinah.

When Bilaam looked down on the Israelites’ encampment, he saw that the entrances to their tents were not facing each other.  And he said, “These ones are worthy of having God’s presence rest upon them.”

Bilaam observes that Israel’s greatness – their fitness to dwell with God – lied in the fact that their encampments were designed so that no one was able to look into any other person’s home.

Now, the traditional understanding of the Talmud’s interpretation here is that the Israelites were great because they were modest, they respected privacy.  But I want to suggest a different interpretation: the Talmud teaches us that the Israelites were blessed because no Israelite needed to look into another’s home in order to validate his own.  The Israelites’ greatness was that no Israelite compared himself to his neighbors.

This teaching resonated with me this week.  Adira and I have been putting together our new home, so I’ve been thinking quite a bit about homes and home set-ups.

One of the great aspects of becoming part of the Har Zion community is the distinct joy of living in the Oak Hill.  We were fortunate enough to find a lovely three-bedroom condo in the South Building – you all have an open invitation, and we hope to share many Shabbat and holy day meals and learning with you there – and we are really settling in nicely.  It’s not perfect, of course, but we love our new home and think it is fabulous.

But I want to share with you a dark moment that I had just a few weeks ago.  I was in St. Louis, where I had the opportunity to see my friend Ari’s new home.  Ari is one of my oldest and closest friends, and was my classmate in rabbinical school.  After ordination, Ari took a job in St. Louis as an assistant rabbi.  So I visited Ari, and he showed me his new home.  And as I walked into this gorgeous, 5 bedroom, 3 story, 4,000 square foot home, I immediately began comparing it to my 3 bedroom, 1 story, 1400 square foot apartment.  And I think one word can easily summarize my feelings: jealous.  I was unbelievably jealous of my friend’s house.

When I walked into Ari’s home, all of a sudden, the home that I loved wasn’t good enough anymore.  All of its imperfections – which at first were simply humorous little quirks, silly idiosyncrasies – seemed so much worse.  And I began judging my home, my well-being, and ultimately my life, based not on what I had, but on what Ari had that I did not.

Fortunately, it didn’t take me too long to come to my senses and remind myself of how much I love my new home, and what a blessing it is to be here.  But when I stop to reflect on my initial reaction to seeing Ari’s house, I admit that I find myself in that same place quite often.  I frequently judge myself in comparison to others, looking at what they have that I don’t, and saying to myself “Gee, if only my life were more like theirs!”

And this is a major impediment to my happiness.  Because no matter how hard I try, I will never have exactly the same possessions, I will never have exactly the same gifts, I will never have exactly the same accomplishments as anyone else.  No matter what I do, if I compare my own life to others’, I will always find myself wanting.  I suspect that this rings true for some of you here tonight, as well.

And the danger of comparing ourselves to others works in the other direction, too.  How many of us judge what we have in comparison to what others don’t?  How many of us have looked at someone else and said to ourselves “Gee, at least I don’t have it that bad!”

And this, too, is destructive, in three distinct ways: First, we usually aren’t satisfied knowing that there are some folks under us; we are wired to be satisfied only when everyone is under us.  As Bruce Springsteen sings, “Poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, and a king ain’t satisfied ‘til he rules everything.”

Second, no matter how hard we try to build ourselves up by comparing ourselves to the lowliness of others, there will always be yet other people who have it better off than we do.  As the saying goes, “There is always a bigger fish.”

And, finally, we know, deep down, that this kind of comparison is actually meaningless in determining the value of our lives.  It’s like in high school, when you would be graded on a curve.  You may have gotten an ‘A’ on the test, but when viewed objectively, when viewed not on the curve, your work might actually deserved a ‘C.’

No matter how you slice it, when we compare ourselves to others, we will always find ourselves wanting.

So how is it that the Israelites are able to withstand the temptation to compare themselves to others?

We can find the answer in the next line of Bilaam’s blessing.  Bilaam continues to say that the Israelites are like “palm groves that stretch out, like gardens beside a river, like aloes planted by Adonai, like cedars beside the water.”  What does this mean?  A cedar planted by a stream is firmly rooted – secure, quietly confident.  So too, the way Israel’s homes are arranged reflects a sense of inner-security, of inner-strength, and confidence.  The goodness of Israel’s homes shows that they are as firmly rooted as cedars planted along a stream.

The desire to constantly compare ourselves to others often stems from our own insecurities. We grade ourselves on a curve because we worry that, were we to grade ourselves objectively, it might not be the grade we would want.  So to help assuage our insecurities, we literally and figuratively look into our friends’ houses to see how ours stacks up.  And, usually, we are disappointed.  On the other hand, the ability to refrain from constantly looking into the homes of others – literally and figuratively –requires us to be confident in our own blessings.

What made Israel so worthy of blessing, the Talmud teaches, was that they did not look into each others’ homes.  The Children of Israel did not compare themselves to their neighbors.  And the Israelites are able to have such a good setup of homes, the Torah instructs, because, like a cedar planted by a stream, they are secure, strong, rooted.  Israel was blessed because they did not look into each other’s homes…They were confident that who they were – what they possessed, what they had accomplished, what they had been blessed with – was enough.

So this Shabbat, I want us all to know that each of us, literally and figuratively, have homes whose greatness and beauty is beyond compare. Each of us has our own gifts.  Each of us is a blessing and is blessed. You are enough.  This Shabbat, I invite us all to believe the blessing of our lives.  And when we do, we will no longer need to look for our own validation in the homes of others.  Shabbat Shalom.

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