Proportion: A part, share, or number considered in comparative relation to a whole.
Perspective: The ability to perceive things in their actual interrelations or comparative importance.
We Israelis can’t be blamed if we’ve become weary of hearing the word
“disproportionate” flung at us by those who sit securely in far-off countries
and judge our military operations from their lofty perch. Invariably these
critics are comparing the number of Israeli casualties to casualties in the Arab
civilian population among whom the enemy has cynically and successfully embedded
columnist Jonathan Rosenblum, in last week’s
Magazine, did an eloquent job of exposing the fallacy of the argument that
self-defense should be carried out “proportionately,” meaning that “if the other
guy comes at you with a stick, you can’t pull a knife; if he’s got a knife, you
can’t pull a gun.”
A graduate of Yale Law School, he joined those experts
who have given the matter much-needed perspective by pointing out that
proportionality in international law is not symmetry; and “the relevant moral
question is who initiated combat, and have they ceased their
With this he relegated to their deserved place of dishonor
those who, like Washington Post
ombudsman Patrick B. Pexson, “dismiss the
overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza” on Israeli civilians as “‘bee
stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.’” It occurs to me, in the broader human
arena, how crucial proportion and perspective are, and how lost we would be
without them – like being down the rabbit hole with Alice, or lurching through a
hall of distorting mirrors where your head spins and you can’t rely on anything
you see. In our world, we continually balance one thing against another in a way
that “feels right.” It gives us a sense of being grounded and secure.
wonder whether it is this eternal need for balance that has wedded outsiders to
the simplistic notion that Israel’s actions in defense of its people are, as
Rosenblum wrote, “like a feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys: If the
Hatfields killed three McCoys, three Hatfields (and no more) must now
The often subconscious human drive for balance may also go some
way in explaining the amoral “even-handedness” that plagues much of the
international community’s treatment of Israel in its ongoing conflict with its
My father might have ended this part of the discussion with his
characteristically wry summary of our enemies’ recurring plaint: “It all started
when they hit us back.”
THE GREEKS believed that symmetry, proportion and
harmony were the three elements comprising beauty. The human eye is encoded to
seek balance, and objects that are in the correct proportion are perceived as
pleasing or beautiful. No visitor to the Acropolis could
Classical art and architecture are based on proportion and
perspective. Modern architects, interior designers and photographers balance
dimensions, shapes and colors in proportion to each other to create a satisfying
whole. Even flower arrangers emphasize scale and proportion as vital in getting
successful results (“Relate the quality and size of the arrangement to its vase
or container, and relate the arrangement as a whole to its setting.”) Faces that
are considered the most beautiful – the Mona Lisa‘s, for example – are said to
exhibit a perfect balance, sometimes called the Golden Ratio, that humans can
Yet some years ago, a British Sunday newspaper
carried out a fascinating experiment. It took portraits of actors and actresses,
some legendary, who were regarded as supremely beautiful – Marilyn Monroe was
one – and superimposed them on top of one other.
The premise was that the
resulting two images, an amalgam of all those stunning features, would be a
super-beautiful man and a super-beautiful woman.
The result was
disappointing. In each case, the composite picture was an uninspiring visage
that wouldn’t have stood out in a crowd. The individuality, the human
particularity, had been obliterated. Think Barbie and Ken, then consider Meryl
Streep and Daniel Day Lewis.
The English statesman-philosopher Francis
Bacon perhaps said it best: “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some
strangeness in the proportion.”
WHAT HAPPENS when our ability to keep
things in proportion is absent, or imperfect? There is a London Music Hall song
(writer unknown) called – somewhat alarmingly – “Your Baby Has Gone Down the
Plughole.” Its lyrics might be amusing if very young children didn’t actually go
through a stage in which their sense of physical proportion has yet to develop.
Seeing the open plughole while they are still in the bath – if mother has
started letting the water out – they can become terrified of getting sucked into
it, impossible as we know this to be.
As to events occurring in our
grown-up lives, and the feelings that arise out of them, it has to be a
challenge, even for the most “adjusted” among us, to keep things in proportion
and not allow disappointment, anger, hurt and a variety of other negative
emotions to rule our lives long after the occasions that gave rise to them have
If we didn’t already know this, it would be obvious from the
frequency with which we admonish others, or ourselves, to stop “making a
mountain out of a molehill,” or “creating a storm (or tempest) in a
In this connection, a 97-year-old friend of mine says she never
stays angry or bears a grudge for more than half an hour. “Life is too short,”
she explains with a smile.
IMAGINE THAT you are strolling through one of
the world’s major art museums and come into a gallery where huge and detailed
paintings from previous centuries each occupy most of an entire wall.
you stand up close to a painting, you will see only the section directly
opposite your line of vision. To absorb the “big picture” and the significance
of all its parts, both in themselves and in relation to each other, you have to
It’s much like that with things that happen to us, but so
deeply entwined are we with our feelings that it’s very much harder than in an
art gallery to take that figurative step backwards and see things in perspective
and more objectively.
Yet only in this way can we judge what is essential
in our lives, what is less important, and what is, ultimately, irrelevant; and
stop dwelling on it.
Is Jewish law reminding us to maintain a sense of
proportion when, despite the Torah’s prohibition against cooking milk and meat
together, if one part of milk accidentally spills into a pot of 60 parts meat,
the one milky part is nullified and the dish may be eaten (batel beshishim)?
BLOGGER, recalling inspiring people in her life, related that when she was a
child, her mother baked some pies before Thanksgiving and placed them on the
stairs to cool.
“My friend and I were running up and down the stairs, and
she accidentally stepped in one of the pies. She said there was not even
a hint of anger on my mother’s face, and it was something my friend always
remembered when raising her own children.
“Whenever mishaps occurred, she
would remind herself: It’s only a pie.”
IF WE’RE talking about
inspiration – and a very different kind of pie – one can only stand in silent
tribute to the utterance of a man who, from tragic experience, knew a thing or
two about maintaining his sense of perspective and proportion.
Oprah Winfrey in an interview about how he felt when he heard that he had lost
his life savings as well as the $15 million of his foundation to Bernie Madoff,
Elie Wiesel answered: “[My wife and I] looked at each other, and our reaction
was, ‘We have been through worse.’”
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