Judaism places great importance on human dignity. We are, after all, created in the image of the Almighty. Many times, it takes extra care to preserve dignity, but failure to do so can result in tragedy. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
There was a man who had done some terrible things and was not welcome in any shul in town.
One day, he entered a shul anyway and sat down. Someone soon alerted the Rabbi, who had a choice to make. He could stop the chazzan and make an announcement that they would not continue until the individual leaves. Undoubtedly, this would totally humiliate the person. Instead, the Rabbi chose an option that would preserve the man’s dignity. The Rabbi took a seat next to him and quietly whispered, “You and I both know you can’t be here. But I want you to save face. Please exit the shul quietly and I’m certain no one will notice or pay attention.” The person realized there was no room for negotiations. He quietly got up and walked out.
A similar incident occurred but concluded in a very different way. Someone was in a shul collecting funds, but had not received permission to do so. The rabbi was not present that morning. The collector was approached by someone davening and told in a very loud voice to leave. A big commotion ensued, with the collector being yelled at and publicly humiliated. In fact, he was pushed and shoved and forcibly removed in a most undignified way.
In our parsha, we meet Bilaam, who was a very talented person- smart, powerful and influential. He was the prophet for the non-Jewish nations. Yet, he let jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor govern his life. All of his actions were rooted in these traits. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos says, anyone who possesses these qualities is a disciple of Bilaam.
Balak, the king of Moav, sent special representatives to Bilaam with the goal of hiring him to curse the Jewish nation. Hashem told Bilaam he may not go with these men for that purpose. Bilaam’s conceit led him to misinterpret Hashem’s message and he replied that Hashem would not allow him to be escorted by people of this [inferior] stature. Balak therefore sent a new envoy of greater officials and a promise of great prestige and a fortune of money. Bilaam’s desire for honor blinded him and he went along with them, convinced Hashem would allow him to curse the Jews. Clearly, the pursuit of kavod (honor) was leading him to make irrational decisions.
We find another scenario in Tanach where the drive for prestige led to a noted person’s downfall. Yeravam ben Nevat, the wicked king of Northern Israel, was offered by Hashem the chance to do teshuva and was promised that he would stroll in Gan Eden, together with Hashem and King David. Yeravam asked if King David would be in front of him. Hashem responded yes. Yeravam then refused, since he felt it would be slight to his honor.
There’s no denying that seeking honor is a driving force in man. Pirkei Avos lists the three most destructive character traits: jealousy, lust, and the pursuit of honor – each of which can destroy a person’s marriage, career and friendships. Rav Wolbe noted that these traits are listed in the order that they are most dominant in a human. At a young age, jealousy is strongest, for the youngster wants what the other has. Lust then dominates in the teen years. And after twenty, honor (which is intertwined with money) is often the strongest force. Long after a person’s physical senses are dulled, the desire for honor still remains.
Yet, honor has its place. The parsha has the donkey of Bilaam actually speaking aloud in words of rebuke to Bilaam! This donkey was created at the beginning of creation, with its miraculous ability to speak, yet Rashi notes that Hashem made this donkey die afterward, lest people point to it and be reminded of the rebuke to Bilaam. Amazing- preserving the dignity that is an essential characteristic of every man, was enough cause for Hashem to intervene to save the honor of this most wicked man who tried to destroy the Jewish people.
So how should we deal with honor? According to Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the pursuit of honor should only be for the honor of others- not for the honor of oneself. When we act in ways that preserve the kavod and dignity of those around us, as was the case where the Rabbi intervened in the first incident we opened with, we distance ourselves from the ways of Bilaam and emulate the ways of Hashem.