When It Counts

June 24, 2009

4 min read


Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35 )

A few years ago, a million-dollar prize went uncollected. The Clay Mathematics Institute offers a million dollars for the solution to any one of seven major math problems. A Russian mathematician named Perelman solved one of the problems (known as the Poincare Conjecture) and posted it on the Internet without explanation. Apparently he did not want to play by the rules, which include having the solution explained and published.

He just didn't care about the money.

In a related curious episode, we see that sometimes putting out a reward helps solve a problem, and sometimes it hinders.

Immediately following the assassination of President Lincoln, a bounty was put on the head of Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Unfortunately, the bounty hunters gave each other misleading clues to throw each other off track, which delayed his apprehension.

Getting back to our mathematician, was it genius that led Perelman to the solution of the problem? Or perhaps it was precisely because he didn't play up to fanfare and fame.

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Spirituality is not flimsy and ethereal. It has its own set of rules, just like the physical world. One of these rules is that "blessings come to hidden things." God is hidden, so to speak, and doesn't boast His accomplishments. He created the most incredible things and His infiniteness is unimaginable. Yet He doesn't brag. We are more powerful when we imitate this attribute.

Moreover, an important principle of the Torah is "not to cause someone else to stumble," either physically or spiritually (see Leviticus 19:14). We try to be careful not to cause others to lie, steal or gossip.

Jealousy is also a transgression. Yet many people purposely encourage jealousy.

You can buy a cheap watch that looks like a Rolex, but you can't buy a Rolex that looks like a cheap watch. Most people want you to be jealous or impressed with what they have. How many humble people want an expertly crafted watch or car that is unimpressively designed? It wouldn't sell very well.

If you flaunt your talents, abilities and blessings in order to encourage jealousy, you are causing people to spiritually stumble. They are violating the commandment "not to covet."

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Many cultures around the world have a superstitious understanding of the "evil eye." But there is a way of looking at it similar to what we've been writing here.

When you invite jealousy, you're inviting negative energy from someone else. For this insensitivity or transgression on your part, you may incur a Divine consequence of losing some of your blessing. (If you give a child a toy and she hits her little brother with it, you might take the toy away. She's not using it the way you intended.)

Another spiritual rule that the kabbalists describe, explains the evil eye thusly:

When someone stares at your blessing and thinks, "Why should so-and-so have that brand new Hummer? He's not so righteous. Why is God rewarding him?", it's like a complaint to Heaven, and an accusation that gets registered. The heavenly court then examines you and your blessing to determine if you in fact deserve it. If you don't, your blessing may be damaged or lost.

Of course, the accuser doesn't get off scot free, either, because then the heavenly court decides to investigate the accuser. "Who is this that comes to judge My child?" God asks.

So it's always a bad idea to give someone else an evil eye. And it's a bad idea to expose yourself to it, too.

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From all of this we can more easily understand the prohibition of taking a census. In this week's Torah portion, a census is taken by counting coins rather than people - "so that there will not be a plague among them." It is implied that counting people is forbidden. The commentator, Rashi, says that the evil eye has special influence over things that are counted.

When you count people, you are singling them out for significance. Therefore, under most circumstances, it is better to be part of a crowd.

It's natural to want recognition for our accomplishments. We take pride and pleasure in our achievements. But never forget the source of your ability - the Infinite Being - and you'll be less likely to incur jealousy. You're also more likely to inspire others.

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Spiritual Exercise:

Plan to do at least one mitzvah this week, in a way that no one else will ever know about.

Next Steps