“That’s some new kitchen Sandra just had done. State of the art!” “Psst . . . did you see the new car Mark just took delivery of? It’s got every gadget in the book!” Common conversation. Rather routine, everyday talk.
They tell of a rep on the road who had broken all records for sales in his company. When asked the secret of his success, he explained that the first thing he said when someone opened the door was, “Did you see what your neighbor Mrs. Jones just got?” That trick never failed him.
This was never the Jewish ethic, however. We were taught differently, and our ancient value system is as relevant as ever in contemporary life. Privacy, modesty and discretion are all characteristics our people have cherished since we became a nation.
“Balaam raised his eyes, and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes” (Numbers 24:3).
What was so special about the Israelites’ dwelling? Rashi offers one interpretation of the verse, that the doorways of the Israelites’ tents in the wilderness were arranged so that they did not face each other. That way, one person was not able to see into his neighbor’s tent, and their privacy was protected. In fact, this is one of the explanations of Balaam’s famous praise of the Jews, Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov—“How goodly are your tents, O Jacob.” The heathen prophet was extolling the Jews’ virtues in their town planning, whereby they took precautions in safeguarding their modesty and protecting their personal family lives from would-be busybodies and peeping Toms, otherwise known as yentas and nudniks.
Another possible interpretation of “not looking into your neighbor’s tent” might be this: Do not look into your neighbor’s tent to help you decide what you should be doing. Your decisions in life should not be based on what other people are, or are not, doing. Certainly not on what your neighbors have or do not have.
Social workers today will painfully testify that family breakdowns are often a result of financial difficulties and the stress that these put on marriages. Many of those stresses are self-imposed. Their clients confessed that they didn’t really need the new kitchen or the new car, but once their friends were moving up in the status stakes, they felt under pressure to maintain their social standing.
Whether it is the kitchen, car, vacation, or the latest digital technology, if we allow ourselves to be judged by other people’s criteria, we lay ourselves open to a lot of unnecessary stress. Even a simchah—a wedding or bar mitzvah—can get us into “keeping up with the Cohens” mode, from the seven-layered designer invitation hand-delivered to every guest, down to the posh dinner dance replete with chopped-liver sculptures.
Why? All because we are busy looking over our shoulders or peering into the next-door neighbor’s place.
The principle even applies to tzedakah. There is an appeal for the shul or a Jewish charity, and how do we respond? “Well, if so-and-so, who is a multimillionaire, only gave $10,000, then all I should give is $10!” What difference does it make what someone else gave or didn’t give? You should give what you can, irrespective of what others gave.
How much resentment, bitterness and disappointment we would avoid if we didn’t try to measure ourselves by other people’s standards! We would be much happier people if we looked into ourselves and achieved what we could and should, without drawing comparisons with others.
If you want to enjoy the blessing of “goodly tents,” or even just good housekeeping, keep your eyes and your nose in your own tent. Then you will be content, too.