We read in Parashat Balak that as Bilam prepared to attempt to curse Benei Yisrael, he had Balak build several altars, and the two of them offered sacrifices on the altars. Rashi (23:4), citing from the Midrash, writes that Bilam had these altars built and offered these sacrifices in order to claim religious superiority to Benei Yisrael. He told God that Benei Yisrael’s founders – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – built for the Almighty a total of seven altars among all of them, over the course of their lifetimes, whereas Bilam himself offered that same number.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 23) proceeds to tell that God replied to Bilam by citing the verse in Mishlei (17:1), “Dry bread amid serenity is better than a home filled with feasts of fighting.” God told Bilam that He prefers few and simple sacrifices over those offered by Bilam, “for you seek to introduce a fight between Me and Israel.” The “serene” sacrifices of the patriarchs were far preferable to Bilam’s sacrifices which were offered for the sake of arousing God’s anger upon His beloved nation.
The Midrash here warns against using religious observance as a source of competition and one-upmanship. God does not look kindly upon those who “build altars,” who perform special religious acts, for the sake of “introducing a fight,” to show that they are better than others. Our service of God must be geared towards uplifting and inspiring other people, not making us feel superior to others. “Sacrifices” offered for the sake of experiencing a sense of superiority is not act of service of God, but rather an act of serving oneself by trying to boost one’s ego. Chazal here teach us that all our “sacrifices” must be genuine and sincere, and should never be made as cheap attempts to feel we are better than the people around us.