5779 – Balak
Some intriguing research conducted by Dan Ariely and his colleagues (Emir Kamenica and Drazen Prelec) highlights how powerful and important a simple gesture of acknowledgement can be in terms of our level of engagement and perseverance. They orchestrated a study to examine our willingness to work on a task, depending on the extent to which it was recognized by another party.
To test this idea, Ariely and his team paid participants to complete a simple, repetitive task. Each individual was given a sheet of paper with sequences of letters. Their job was to find ten examples where two consecutive letters (e.g., “gg”) appeared in the text. Each sheet completed by the participant needed to be handed to the experimenter to receive their remuneration. The payment schedule was on a sliding scale, however, such that each subsequent sheet completed received a lower amount of money. The primary question of interest for the researchers was to see how long people would engage in this task.
Although everyone received the same instructions, they were placed into one of three groups. In the first, when participants submitted their sheets for payment, the experimenter would look up and then quickly scan their answers before filing them away (e.g., Acknowledged). In another group, the experimenters just took the paper and immediately filed it without reviewing the work (e.g., Ignored). In the last condition, the experimenter would take the completed form without looking at it and immediately put it through the shredder (e.g., Shredder).
As one would expect the researchers were keenly interested to learn what impact, if any, these manipulations had on the willingness of the participants to continue. The results were striking. When comparing the three conditions, those in the Acknowledged condition persevered significantly longer, completing over one-third more sheets of paper in the task than those in the Ignored or Shredder conditions.
Interestingly, there was no difference between the completion rates for the Ignored and Shredder groups.
There is an inherent human need to be seen. To be acknowledged, to be accepted. In our generation, so many of us, our family and friends fill this need with social media. It’s not necessarily a negative thing, but it’s pervasiveness is informative. We are led to believe that the need to be seen grows from the need to stroke our own ego, it really doesn’t. Yes, our ego is a force of its own, but the need to be seen stems from something far deeper – people want and need to be seen.
Mazlow, in his famous hierarchy of needs would categorize this need as part of “love and belonging”. But I think it’s much more basic than that. In the deepest sense, each and every person questions their value, importance and impact in the world. And it’s hard to get up in the morning without a sure feeling that one is seen and noticed.
Why did Hashem made us so – Perpetually in a state of psychological and existential yearning and loneliness? Rashi in Bereishis tells us that the world is lacking because Hashem wants us to recognize that we are in need, that we’re not whole. This in turn allows us to create relationships with God, with each other, with our spouses and children. It drives ingenuity, invention and creativity. From the moment we’re born, we’re screaming “mommy, daddy, look at what I made.” If we didn’t feel that lacking, that need for acknowledgement, it’s quite possible that humanity would cease to exist.
But displaying the vulnerability is dangerous. Anyone who has posted a picture online only to repeatedly check how many likes and shares it has, knows this truth intimately. Anyone who still carries with them the words of a teacher, or Morah or Rebbe from elementary school (whether positive or negative) knows this feeling well. Anyone who has ever beamed from praise, or shrunk from insult understands how susceptible we all are.
The perhaps unfortunate, but obvious fact of life is that we so often define ourselves by the observations of others.
So Balak approaches Bilaam, and asks him to destroy the Jewish people. And the Torah is quite clear on how Bilaam is going to achieve this feat. He is going to exploit our vulnerabilities. By finding points of weakness, Bilaam is going to say exactly the thing that will leave the Jewish people feeling most exposed. He’s going to take the natural human need for being seen, and use it to crush us.
As the Mishna is Avos teaches us:
עין רעה, ורוח גבוהה, ונפש רחבה, מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.
One who possesses an evil eye… is a student of Bilaam.
But Hashem doesn’t allow Bilaam to curse us, and indeed, his frustrations are apparent in the words he speaks:
כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב׃
For from the top of the rocks I see him. From the hills I see him. Behold, it is a people that dwells alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.
They’re all alone, and are not counted amongst the nations: that is to say, they’re not interested in what I have to say about them.
But Balak persists; try again. So Bilaam attempts a second time:
לֹֽא־הִבִּ֥יט אָ֙וֶן֙ בְּיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְלֹא־רָאָ֥ה עָמָ֖ל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל י״י֤ אֱלֹהָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וּתְרוּעַ֥ת מֶ֖לֶךְ בּֽוֹ׃
He has not seen iniquity in Jacob. Neither has he seen perverseness in Israel. Hashem his God is with him. The shout of a king is among them.
Rashi explains here: Hashem doesn’t want to get upset with the Jewish people – ותרועת מלך – לשון חיבה וריעות – Hashem is their friend! How am I supposed to affect a people with such a strong support system? Hashem himself is smiling on them.
But again Balak presses; with a similar result:
מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹהָלֶ֖יךָ יַעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
How goodly are your tents, Jacob, and your tents, Israel!
Rashi here explains:
מה טובו אהליך – על שראה פתחיהם שאין מכוונין זה מול זה
– He said this because he saw that the entrances of their tents were not exactly facing each other (Bava Batra 60a; cf. v. 2).
Bilaam is again frustrated! You can give an evil eye all you like – but if the person doesn’t even look back at you, it’s completely ineffective. It’s that simcha of knowing that someone is staring at you on the road, and you’re not even looking at them.
Bilaam notices with dismay that he cannot curse a people who do not need him to feel seen by him. They have Hashem, and their own families. They’re not even looking out the window.
Creating Homes Where Children Can be Seen
The Bnei Yissaschar in אגרא דכלה quotes from the ספר הפליאה that:
בזמן שהאב והאם עם הבנים אין עין הרע שולטת בהם
When father and mother are with the children, the evil eye cannot affect them.
He explains: While this is a deep metaphysical concept, the psychology of it is clear. This is why, when Esav comes to attack, Yaakov protects his children by sending them back with their mothers.
The job of a parent, the charge of a home, is to ensure that children feel seen, accepted, acknowledged and appreciated at home. So that they’re not looking for the Bilaams of the world to define the meaning of their lives. Oy vavoy for the children, the teens, the adults that look to the internet, to feel seen.
Simply stated, the notion of עין הרע is the exploitation of the need to be seen, to make a person feel smaller. It the greatest curse in the world. And Hashem protects us from it, and urges us to protect our children, or homes and each other.
The Haftara this week ends with the famous charge of צניעות – modesty. Most often this is meant as a directive on how to dress. But that’s not what the Navi says:
הִגִּ֥יד לְךָ֛ אָדָ֖ם מַה־טּ֑וֹב וּמָה־ה׳ דּוֹרֵ֣שׁ מִמְּךָ֗ כִּ֣י אִם־עֲשׂ֚וֹת מִשְׁפָּט֙ וְאַ֣הֲבַת חֶ֔סֶד וְהַצְנֵ֥עַ לֶ֖כֶת עִם־אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
He has told you, O man, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk discreetly with your God.
The Malbim explains on the Pasuk: It means having a private relationship with Hashem:
שזה שורש המצות שבין אדם למקום שילך עם אלהים, ללכת בדרכיו ולהתקדש בקדושתו, כמ״ש והייתם קדושים כי קדוש אני, זה יהיה בהצנע ובסתר
Notice, how our Tefillos, especially on Shabbos and Yom Tov constantly return to these themes: אשר בחר בנו מכל העמים – You chose us! הבוחר בעמו ישראל באהבה – You choose us with love! אהבת אותנו ורצית בנו – You love us, You want us!
Why was Bilaam ineffective? Because while he was flashing a middle finger on the high way of Jewish history, Klal Yisrael was listening to a shuir in the car. They felt that רצית בנו – Hashem loves me, wants me, believes in me. Bilaam failed because no-one felt the need to look back at him.
The Power of Acknowledgement
The Izbitzer explains this reality in ח״ב פר׳ מצורה:
וראה הכהן והנה נרפא נגע הצרעת מן הצרוע. איתא בזה”ק (תזריע מ”ט:) הכהן סתם דא קב”ה היינו שבעת שהשי”ת מביט לפרט נפש מישראל, אז ממילא מתרפא האדם מכל חסרונותיו, כי ראיית השי”ת פועלת טובה.
When you are seen by Hashem – that alone is healing.
Sivan Rahav Meir recently shared the following story from Avinoam Hirsch:
“At school, I gave a certificate of excellence to one student, but by mistake I sent a notification about it to the mother of another student: ‘Bravo! Your child received a certificate of excellence!’. By the time I realized my mistake and tried to delete it, I already got an answer: ‘You do not understand what your message did for me. It is the happiest thing that has happened to me this week’. I realized that her child is going to go home without really having a certificate of excellence, which he really did not deserve. That day I had even asked him to leave the classroom because he did not stop disturbing the class. I went to him and told him what had happened, and then said: ‘Listen, you are the first student to whom I am going to loan a certificate of excellence. You do not deserve it, but I believe that your behavior in the upcoming week will justify it’. When he heard that I told his mother that he got a certificate of excellence, his eyes lit up and he said: ‘Just last night my mother cried that I make her so sad, after she talked with my English teacher. Thank you. I will not let you down’.
Throughout the following week, this naughty student, who had always ruined the classes, turned into an angel. The school’s educational consultant asked me if his mother started giving him Ritalin, and I answered: ‘No. He is on a much stronger stuff which burns inside of him. It is called trust’.”
There are three nekudos to understand here:
The first is that each and every person is looking for recognition. It doesn’t make us needy – it makes us human.
The second is to build homes, and lives and communities that cultivate seeing the best in each other, and not Chalila doing the opposite.
The third, is that if we, as adults can fill that need to be seen with recognition from Hashem, we will never feel broken. He is always looking to love us, believe in us and value us.
Hashem should help us to be Talmidei Avraham Avinu – always looking for the good.