Praise: A Double-Edged Sword
Balak, the King of Moav, wanted Bilaam to curse the Jews, but as we read in Parshat Balak, the only things that Bilaam says are blessings. Taking note of this difficulty, Rabbi Yochanan in Masechet Sanhedrin (105b) teaches us:
“From the blessings pronounced by that wicked man (Bilaam), you can deduce what was actually in his heart.”
The Talmud then goes on to analyze each of the blessings and explains what Bilaam really wanted to say. For example Bilaam wished to curse Bnai Yisrael that they should have no synagogues or study halls. Instead he was forced to say Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov- how good are Jacob’s tents- a reference to shuls and Batei Medrash.
Bilaam cannot catch a break from our tradition. Even when blessings utter from his mouth, the Rabbis attribute evil motives. Why do they insist on viewing Bilaam’s blessings with suspicion, even scorn?
Perhaps the problem that the Rabbis had with Bilaam is in the blessings themselves. Praise can be given with two completely different outcomes. I can give praise that encourages the recipient to strive and want to do better. Or I can give praise that causes the person to feel that s/he has no reason to strive any further. Psychologists today are concerned that in America we are raising a generation of over-indulged children. One of the symptoms of this overindulgence is that some parents are prone to over-praise. Although it may come from noble and loving motivations, over-praise can backfire and make the child addicted to praise. It can give that child an unrealistic notion of his own capacity and talent. It can also lead a child to reason that he does not have to strive for improvement or excellence, because praise will be given regardless.
Bilaam as a prophet understood that praise can be extremely motivating or extremely harmful. His words were meant to lull Bnai Yisrael into a sense of complacency. There was no mitigating call for improvement within Bilaam’s blessings. And it is when people feel that there is nothing more to achieve that they are most prone for failure. For example, let us examine one of the most famous of Bilaam’s blessings: Mah tovu Ohalecha Yaakov, How good are your tents, oh Jacob.
The Talmud in Baba Batra page 60 says that this blessing refers to the Jewish People’s modesty. Their camps were set up such that no two tent doors opened directly opposite one another. This prevented families from seeing inside each other homes thereby maintaining a high level of modesty. And yet at the end of the Parsha we read about the People’s sin with the daughters of Moav, extreme violations and disregard for any semblance of modesty, let alone Torah commandments. So what happened? How could a nation that had been praised for its modesty so soon after act in such immodest fashion? The Rabbis tell us to look no further than to Bilaam’s supposed blessings for the answer. Instead of blessings that encourage the recipient to continue to strive for excellence, Bnai Yisrael heard about Bilaam’s blessings and decided that they had reached the pinnacle- they had been blessed, and there was no reason to maintain that standard.
It's important that we see the good in ourselves, each other and our community. Praise is a great way to convey these sentiments. However we must remember our tradition’s suspicion of Bilaam’s praise. Let us be careful not to allow praise to lull us into complacency, or even backtracking. Rather let us utilize praise as a motivating force for us to maintain and even exceed our achievements.