The True Measure
It's nice to be smart and talented. But there is something which is far more important to be - good. In this week's Torah portion, we meet Balaam. He was a super genius, very powerful and charismatic and extremely talented. Yet he was one of the worst, most lowly humans who ever lived. Why? Because he used all of his talents selfishly and to hurt others. The Torah teaches that the true measure of a person's worth is not his talent, but the goodness of his heart.
In our story, some kids discover what it means to have what it takes.
Dan ran with everybody else to the bunk to hear the counselor's decision about who would be chosen to be his new assistant. Although his feet were moving, he wasn't into it. After all, what chance did someone like him have of being chosen when there were guys like Steve?
It had all started a week ago, when they first arrived and Marc, the head counselor of their division, had told them that he was going to choose one extra-special guy - "a leader who has what it takes" - for the very special privilege of being counselor's assistant. That kid would have an hour later curfew every night than the rest of the kids and get extra rations at the camp canteen, and since his job was to make sure everyone else did their jobs, he didn't even have to do any cleaning for weekly bunk inspection!!
Who wouldn't want a deal like that! So when Marc had told them he was going to observe everyone for a week and then choose, you can bet all the guys set out to put on a winning performance.
Dan had been optimistic at first. He was a good, regular kid like everyone else. But he started to lose hope when Marc came by with his clipboard as they were playing basketball. Dan had always been an okay hoop player but compared to Steve, he was a lump of clay. Man, could that kid dribble and shoot! "Give me the ball - why fool around?" Steve would yell to the rest of the guys on the team. At first, nobody listened but then when Dan and the others saw what a whiz the guy was, they just did as he said - it was crazy not to. The game that Marc watched them, Steve had scored the team's every point.
Dan had hoped he'd get his chance to impress Marc the evening they had quiz night. He'd brushed up on his multiplication tables during after-lunch break and even made sure to check out the map on the wall in case there'd be questions on geography. But then, when Steve started going on about something called quadratic equations - or something like that - and could name the capitals of places Dan hadn't even known existed, he gave up on that one too.
So that's why it was almost a joke to be running to the bunk after Marc had blown the whistle for everyone to come and hear his decision. After all, who else could possibly 'have what it takes to be leader' if not Steve? The guy was super smart and super talented, what else was there?
As the kids got closer to the bunk you could see that Old Jim, the maintenance man, certainly hadn't been expecting everyone to come barging in now. He was getting ready to paint the fence and had the bench with all his paint supplies set up right on the path which led to the bunk's front door.
Dan didn't know if Steve (who was running at the head of the pack, naturally) hadn't see Old Jim and his stuff, or just didn't care, but as he breezed by, he just kicked the bench out of the way, sending all the stuff -rollers, brushes and (fortunately still unopened) cans of paint - flying. Dan saw Old Jim's face turn red, but before the old man could even get out a syllable, Steve was long gone. The rest of the kids, following Steve's lead, just ran by, not even giving a glance to the old man shaking his head and looking really upset.
Dan, who was jogging toward the end of the pack, was about to pass by too when he thought about how sad and upset Old Jim must feel about what just happened and all the extra work he was going to have to do now. Even for a young guy, picking up all that stuff would be a hassle.
Slowing down, he turned the bench back right side up, looked at the old man and said; "Here, why don't you just sit down. I'll pick up the stuff that fell." Jim gave Dan one of the widest smiles he had ever seen.
It took Dan a few minutes to pick up all the stuff and he figured he'd get to the bunk in time to shake Steve's hand and congratulate him on becoming the new official counselor's assistant. Hoping he wouldn't get in trouble for showing up late and missing the ceremony, he quietly snuck inside the door. He was surprised to see everyone standing up as he walked in, looking right at him and giving him strange, glowing smiles.
"Well, Dan," said Marc with the biggest smile of all, "I saw the whole thing out there. And while you were out there showing us that you have what it takes for leadership - and being counselor's assistant, I was explaining to all the guys why, and they all agree."
Dan panned his bunkmate's faces as they were all nodding up and down to Marc's words, even Steve.
"Being a leader," Marc went on, "isn't a matter of who has the strongest arms and legs or even the strongest brain. It's a matter of having the strongest heart - that means a heart that cares enough to help a person in need. And I think, Dan, we all saw just now that you win that competition, hands down."
Q. How did Dan feel at first about who was going to win the special job?
A. He felt it would be the kid who was the smartest and the best athlete.
Q. How did he feel in the end?
A. He felt great that he won, but even better that he had won by being good.
Q. What life lesson do you think someone could take from this story?
A. It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that a great person is one who is rich, famous, good-looking or talented. But while all these things may be nice to be, they don't determine a person's greatness. Rather, it is the goodness of one's heart which lets us know where someone truly stands.
Q. Do you think the head counselor made a fair choice by choosing - after Steve had proved how he was clearly the most intellectual and best athlete of the group? Why or why not?
A. While Steve did have these things, the way he selfishly hogged the basketball and especially the way he callously knocked over the old maintenance man's stuff showed he was very lacking inside. Talents are gifts from God; a good heart is something we have to earn ourselves - and Dan, not Steve, had clearly won out in that department.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Why do you think it is specifically the goodness of a person's character that determines how great a person is?
A. Because it is the only thing that is fully in our control. A person's physical abilities and even mental capacity, although he can choose to develop it to a greater or lesser extent, are more or less something he gets as a 'free gift' from God, given through a person's genes, etc. Our character traits, emotions and goodness of the heart, on the other hand, fall squarely within the realm of our free will and therefore are the only true measures of how much we have striven to be great.
Q. Our sages teach that in the upcoming World of Truth, many of those who stand on the top of the ladder of greatness in this world will be at the bottom and many today who are on the bottom will be at the top. How do you understand this?
A. This world is a place where the flashy - those with great natural talents - stand out and shine. A person's charismatic public persona can easily overshadow his personal cruel or selfish behavior. However, in the future World of Truth, everything falls away except for that which we have truly earned, which is choices of goodness and unselfishness we make throughout our lifetime. And on that scale, some of the humblest, most unsung people in this world are going to shine as the true stars.