Improving the World Together

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by Devora Greenberger
Incoming Senior at Beatrice J. Stone Yavne High School

The following d’var torah was presented at the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s Board of Trustees Meeting on June 30, 2015.

In this week’s Torah portion, Balak, a non-Jewish king, anticipates that the approaching Jewish nation may attack and defeat his people. To preempt this, Balak hires Bilaam, one of the most powerful non-Jewish prophets, to curse the potential enemy, so that, should they choose to wage war, they would not be victorious.

Why did Balak choose this complicated solution? It required Bilaam to travel to the Jews’ camp, to identify the exact moment that G-d was angry, and then to deliver an effective curse. Instead, wouldn’t it have been much simpler, and equally effective, to have Bilaam bless Balak’s nation that there be peace?

This reminded me of something that happened in my “Current Issues” class. Each girl was assigned a different politician and was told to listen to his speeches, debates, and campaign rhetoric and report to the class about his platform. We quickly discovered that while it was difficult, based on the speeches, to determine exactly what each politician believed in or proposed to do for the country, it was very easy to determine why each politician felt that his opponent was inferior.

It is human nature to want to be the best, the winner of a given situation, but there are two ways to achieve this. One, is to put down one’s opponent, and rise above him through default. The other, and harder method, is to work to improve oneself and legitimately deserve a higher status.

Balak was faced with this problem. He could have chosen to have his people blessed, but, knowing that he needed his nation to rise above, his immediate thought was to achieve this by pushing the enemy down, by cursing them.

When we look at this from a more global perspective, and we think about what happens when people choose Balak’s solution, we realize that this causes the world to be a more negative place, because it doesn’t involve anyone building themselves up or making improvements. Instead, everyone is rising above by lowering those around them.

In contrast, when people choose to raise themselves up, they are raising the bar for everyone else, and making the world a more positive place. Even more so, when people choose to raise others up, through tzedakah (charity) or chesed (kindness) not only are they raising someone else, but the givers themselves are improved through their acts, thereby increasing the positivity in the world at twice the original rate. Everyone gains.

I feel that this is an especially meaningful thought today, when I am presenting this to the Jewish Federation, because this embodies how the Federation operates. Locally, it provides education, tzedakah, and chesed to our Cleveland community. Globally, it provides for Israel and people struck by natural disasters, among others. Not only are the recipients “raised up” through these actions, but the Federation, by being in existence, and giving so much, is improving the world at a “two-time rate.”

As Michael P. Watson says, “Strong people don’t push others down. They pick them up.”

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