We read in Parashat Balak of the attempt made by Bilam, a gentile prophet, to place a curse on Benei Yisrael at the behest of Balak, the king of Moav, who felt threatened by Benei Yisrael. Each time Bilam requested from God prophetic powers to curse Benei Yisrael, God had him pronounce a blessing, instead.
On each of three occasions when Bilam attempted to place his curse, he had Balak build seven altars and to offer sacrifices on them. And when God appeared to Bilam the first time, Bilam said, “I set up the seven altars, and I offered a bull and a ram on each altar” (23:4). Rashi, citing the Midrash, explains that Bilam here was boasting, saying to God, “These people’s forefathers built [just] seven altars for You, and I set up the same as all of them combined.” This refers to the three patriarchs – Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov – who altogether built a total of seven altars to God. (Rashi proceeds to cite the relevant verses in Sefer Bereishit which make reference to these seven altars.) Bilam prided himself over the fact that he built the same number of altars as Benei Yisrael’s three patriarchs combined.
Chazal here attribute to Bilam the common phenomenon of belittling other people’s accomplishments. Bilam assuredly knew of Benei Yisrael’s glorious past, the great righteous figures who built the foundation of piety, morality and religious devotion which shaped Benei Yisrael’s ethos. But as part of his attempt to cast Benei Yisrael in a negative light, Bilam downplayed the greatness of the patriarchs. He sought to argue to God that the nation’s founders were not all that great, that their accomplishments did not amount to much. This is something which many people oftentimes do when they feel threatened by someone’s accomplishments – to downplay them, to regard them as not much of a big deal, in order to protect themselves from feelings of insecurity or inferiority. We are to do just the opposite, and respect and appreciate the qualities and achievements of other people. Rather than feel threatened by what other people accomplish, we should feel confident in and comfortable with our own efforts and gain inspiration from the achievements of other people as part of our lifelong effort to grow.
Bilam’s mockery of the patriarchs also points to a different phenomenon – seeking to assert superiority by finding one particular area in which one feels greater than others. The Midrash depicts Bilam as claiming his superiority to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov on the basis of one minor detail – that he built more altars to God then they did. Even if we were to assume that Bilam built these altars out of sincere devotion to God (which, quite obviously, he didn’t), his claim would still be preposterous, because this one achievement hardly determines the totality of one’s religious persona. We should not be comparing ourselves to others, and we certainly cannot compare ourselves to others based on one particular area in which we feel we excel more. People are not defined by any single achievement (or, for that matter, by any single fault or failure). We should “build” as many “altars” as we feel capable of “building,” without ever feeling that this makes us superior to those who produce fewer “altars.” We are to strive to achieve the most we can, without feeling compelled to compare ourselves to, or compete with, the achievements of others.