Two people who are trying to reach the same goal have a choice: to either compete and work against each, or cooperate and work with each other. The second way is much more pleasant and usually more effective too. In this week's Torah portion, Bilaam and Balak were enemies from two warring nations, but they banded together as allies to reach their common goal of fighting against the Jewish people. While they cooperated to do evil, we can use the same principle of focusing on our common goals, and cooperating to do good.
In our story two kids find a common goal and learn to work with - instead of against - each other.
"TWO LEFT FEET "
"Buy a concert ticket and help feed the needy!" called out Wendy. She tried to manage her best smile, while nervously keeping one eye on the girl doing the exact same thing just a few yards away.
Mrs. White, her bandleader, had handed out the books of concert tickets the day before and explained how selling them would not only raise money for the local homeless shelter, but also win the kids who sold them big prizes. Wendy was sure she'd sell a ton. But now she was standing out in the boiling heat for almost two hours and hardly sold a single ticket!
'Oh wait a minute,' she thought, 'here comes Mrs. Waxman, my neighbor. For sure she'll buy a ticket from me.' Wendy started walking toward the woman when she noticed Paula, another kid from the band, moving in the same direction.
'What a nerve!' thought Wendy, picking up her pace. 'She saw me approaching her first! Well she's not going to steal this one...'
The two girls simultaneously broke into a mad dash and nearly knocked the older woman over. They both loudly blurted out their appeal at the same time, each one hoping to be heard over the other. Mrs. Waxman, who was usually very kind, was unnerved by the sudden barrage and shook her head. "I don't know what the two of you want, but if that's the way you ask someone for something, I'm not interested." With that, she clicked her tongue and walked into the store.
This kind of scene had been repeating itself all day, and both kids had just about reached their boiling points. "Look what you did!" accused Paula.
"I did? You've been stealing my customers all day!" Wendy shot back.
The two of them flew into a full blown screaming match, creating a big scene. Soon the store manager approached. "I'm sorry girls," he said. "I know I gave you permission to sell tickets in front of the store, but your constant pushing and bickering is disturbing my customers, so I have to ask you both to leave."
Wendy cringed. That had been the third store in the shopping center they had been kicked out from in front of already!
Hot and tired, Wendy trudged on in the direction of the shoe store across the way with Paula, her competitor, hot on her trail. "Why can't you go somewhere else?" Wendy asked, annoyed.
"It's my neighborhood too. I also want to sell tickets; I also want to win a prize. If you don't like it, you go somewhere else!" snapped Paula.
The unsuspecting store manager had no problem letting them stand there, and soon enough, the fierce competition began. 'Oh no! Here comes the manager and we just got here!' thought Wendy. She was sure she knew what was coming, yet for some reason the manager didn't look angry or annoyed like the others.
"Hi girls, can I talk with you for a minute?" she asked.
'Yeah, the minute it takes to boot them out,' Wendy thought bitterly.
But the manager invited them into the air-conditioned store and offered them each a cold drink. "Selling tickets for your band, huh?" she asked with a smile.
The two of them nodded nervously.
"I bet you're both hoping to sell a lot, maybe win a prize too?"
They nodded again.
"Having much luck?"
Both girls sadly shook their heads.
"Well I don't know much about concert tickets, but I have sold a few shoes in my time. To sell shoes you have to know how people walk. Ever notice how people walk?"
By now, both Wendy and Paula were feeling much cooler and more at ease.
"Now both of you stand up and take a few steps."
The kids shrugged and did as she asked. It was better than getting yelled at.
"Great. Now do it again, but this time, I want you to move both feet at the same time."
Wendy tried to take a step, but couldn't. There was just no way to walk unless she kept one foot still as she moved the other. She looked over at Paula and both girls giggled as they were in the same predicament.
"What's the matter?" the manager asked with a deadpan look.
"We can't walk and move both feet at the same time!" laughed Paula.
"That's right. To get where they want to go, both feet have to take turns and cooperate, don't they?"
By now, Wendy was starting to get the point of this strange conversation. "And if Paula and I want to get anywhere selling tickets we have to take turns and cooperate too, right?"
The woman nodded. "I see you also know something about shoes. Now go back out there, cooperate, and succeed!"
Refreshed and inspired, Wendy and Paula made up that they would take turns approaching people, and if one of them knew the person walking by and the other one didn't, the other one would let her speak to them even if it wasn't her turn.
Things went much more smoothly after that and they both sold enough to easily earn the prize. Both Wendy and Paula returned home that day with good feeling and gratitude to the wise store manager who, like the others, had told them to take a walk - but in a different kind of a way.
Q. How did Wendy feel at first about trying to sell tickets?
A. She felt like she had to compete and beat out the other girl in order to succeed.
Q. How did she feel in the end?
A. She saw that if they cooperated and took turns they would both reach their goal of selling tickets.
Q. When each girl gave up a turn to the other, why did they both gain instead of losing out?
A. At first they viewed each other as an obstacle preventing them from reaching their goal of selling tickets, so they fought each other and got nowhere. Later, they realized that since they had the same goal, if they found a way to cooperate - in this case taking turns - everyone would gain.
Q. Why did it take so long for the girls to figure out such an obvious solution?
A. Many times when we are involved in a conflict, we can get so wrapped up in our immediate goal and what we see is preventing it, that we can develop a 'tunnel vision' and become blinded to what would otherwise be obvious. When things aren't working out, and we find ourselves getting frustrated, it always pays to try to cool down, or look for more cool-headed advice. Usually the answer is closer than it seems.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Is it possible to find a common goal with every adversary?
A. Generally it is, if you dig deep enough. The trick is to ponder the underlying motivation of a person's behavior and respond to it rather than his negative behavior. Some common motivations people have are: a desire for respect, or attention, or to be at peace or friendship with others. In our case the shoe store manger helped Wendy realize that Paula didn't want to cause her problems, she only wanted to sell tickets, just as she did. When they realized that, it was relatively easy to find a solution.
Q. Is it ever appropriate to compete rather than cooperate?
A. There is no doubt that competition can be a big motivator, and get people to push themselves harder than they would otherwise. When the competition is one where both parties accomplish more because of it, it can be very positive. But when the object of the competition is to bring the other one down rather than to use it as a tool to bring oneself up, it is generally negative and spiritually harmful.