Do you see what I see?

The first verse of Chapter 12 of the Book of Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures says, “Dishonest scales are an abomination to the Lord; but when people weigh things honestly, the Lord is delighted.” 

The sentence structure here is an example of a literary form called “antithetic parallelism,” characteristic of much Old Testament writing; the first part of the verse says God is disappointed when people cheat, the second part says he’s happy when people measure things right.

The writers of Proverbs were prophets of justice in that they were constantly reminding God’s Chosen about what it takes to be a moral person. When a person goes to the store and orders five pounds of sugar, the sugar he gets should weigh five pounds.

The earliest recorded systems of weights and measures go back to the third and fourth millennium B.C.; the community must have had its fill of cheaters; thus sales and distributions of any sort thenceforth were to adhere to protocols set by a governing body about what a true weight and a true measure are.

Thus, three linear feet are always 36 inches and 36 inches are always a yard in the same way that five pounds of sugar always weigh five pounds — when the needle on a certified scale reaches five, not before or after. It’s a bedrock of justice.

The Hebrew scriptures reflect the rabbinical ethic on honesty. The Encyclopedia of the Bible says, “The Hebrews recognized the importance of exact weights and measurements in the commercial, ethical, and legal life of the nation.”

Deuteronomy 25:13-16 says, for example, “Do not have two differing weights in your bag — one heavy, one light. Do not have two differing measures in your house — one large, one small. You must have accurate and honest weights and measures, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. For the Lord your God detests anyone who does these things, anyone who deals dishonestly.”

The rabbinical bar of justice was set so high that businessmen had to periodically clean the dirt off their scales to avoid shorting people on their measure.

The following story is a case in point:   

Once upon a time a man went to the store and told the storekeeper, “Sir, I’d like five pounds of sugar.” The storekeeper started pouring sugar onto his scale to measure out five pounds, but the needle on the scale went to just three. The storekeeper said, “Sir, here’s your five pounds of sugar; that’ll be 10 dollars.”

And the customer — a man of justice — said in a quiet and easy tone, “Excuse me, Mr. Storekeeper, I ordered five pounds of sugar and you gave me just three; the needle on your scale only went to three and you’re saying that that three is five and you’re charging me for five. Did you not see the needle go to where I saw it go? Do you not see what I see? Have you never heard the Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” It starts like this:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
Do you see what I see
A star, a star, dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite
With a tail as big as a kite.

The storekeeper, piqued by the criticism of how he weighed things, grew testy, “Night wind? Lamb? Dancing star? Kite? What do you take me for, a fool? I set the rules; I am the Chosen One; what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”  

Not one to back down in the face of injustice, the customer came right back, “Sir, you have violated the rules our community has held dear for eons: two and two are four, five pounds of sugar are five pounds of sugar determined when the needle on the government’s certified scale reaches five, not three. According to the code of our ancient covenant, sir, you are a resounding ‘cheat.’”

Now heated beyond compare, the storekeeper gathered his workers into a posse and made them all chant: “Three is five, five is three!” He shouted over them with, “I am the Chosen One who alone can fix it! If you go after me, I’m coming after you. You will not replace me.” He ordered the posse to arm themselves.

Many years ago, when I was hired to work on a grant by a New York state agency, there was an employee in the division with whom I had gone to school at the University at Albany’s Ph.D. program in criminal justice. 

One morning while this fellow and I were chatting in the coffee room, the director of the agency stuck his head in the doorway and said, “Ralph [we’ll call him Ralph here], Ralph, I saw the report you handed in and your data do not match what I’m trying to achieve here; go over the numbers again and bring me something better.”

Ralph caved; I knew it, he knew it, he knew I knew that he had sold out, the two of us once journeymen in the same school where we were taught strict standards of justice.

Later I ran into Ralph and asked him right away, “Ralph, why did you sell out and besmirch the code of honor we were taught to live by?”  

All he said was, “Dennis, I have a wife and a mortgage. Adios.”

I never saw him again.

In 1895, the esteemed French sociologist, Gustave Le Bon, came out with his classic “Psychologie des Foules” in which he described how people morph when they become part of a crowd. The usual translation is “The Psychology of Crowds”; mine is “The Psychology of the Mob-Mind.”

Le Bon said that, when people become part of a crowd, it “makes them feel, think, and act in a manner different from that in which each of them would feel, think, and act if they were alone.” They succumb to a “sentiment of invincible power which allows [them] to yield to instincts which, had [they] been alone, [they] would perforce have kept under restraint.” 

Such a sentiment, he said, is “contagious, and contagious to such a degree that the individual readily sacrifices his personal interest to the collective interest.” He is like a “hypnotized subject … an automaton who has ceased to be guided by his will.”

On his own, such a person might be “a cultured individual … [but] in a crowd, he is a barbarian … a creature … [possessing] the spontaneity, the violence, the ferocity, and also the enthusiasm and heroism of primitive beings …. A trace of antipathy [can turn] into furious hatred.” 

And the wily leader of such a mob knows he must hold them “in fascination by a strong faith (in an idea) in order to awaken the group’s faith … [such a leader] must possess a strong and imposing will, which the group, which has no will of its own, can accept from him.” It’s Le Bon meets “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

Sigmund Freud was so taken with Le Bon’s assessment that he wrote “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego,” describing what takes place in a person’s psyche when he sacrifices his needs, interests, desires, and goals, his “ego-ideal” to a collective mind designed to cheat and steal.

I’m a long-time baker of pies and breads. While at the store a short time ago, when I picked up a five-pound bag of sugar, I saw that the bag contained no longer five but four pounds of sugar!

I could hear the night wind whispering in my ear, “Do you see what I see, little lamb?”

I responded, “I just want to find 453.592 grams of sugar.”