The Wise Auctioneer

  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

Everyone knew that Yoni, the head counselor at summer camp, was a master of innovation and creativity. His activities were new and original, never ceasing to amaze the crowd of campers with his surprises. So, as expected, when the campers heard that Reb Yoni was organizing an activity that night in the auditorium, no one was going to miss it. Everyone, without exception, packed the hall. Yoni proceeded to walk up the steps of the stage to the sound of the campers' excitement. A sly smile indiscernible to the naked eye was hiding in the corners of his lips... This one was going to be different. Unlike previous times, he arrived on stage without any equipment. It was only Yoni. No games, no gadgets, nothing.

Reb Yoni approached the microphone and began, “Good evening kids, are you all in a good mood?” “Yes!”, they replied in unison. “Great, so let’s get started! Have you ever heard of an auction? Do you know what one is?” Yoni asked rhetorically.

He then proceeded to immediately explain, “An auction is essentially a sale where a rare or antique item is presented to the audience, such as a painting by the famous artist, like Van Gogh, or a cigar of the former Prime Minister of England, Winston Churchill, or the like. Each participant that is interested announces a price they are willing to pay. The auction continues until someone is not outbid. Today, I want to hold an auction, but since I don’t have anything of special value, I will instead auction off a fifty-shekel bill (~$13.25). The first rule is simple, whoever offers the highest bid, wins. That person will win fifty NIS even if the offer stands at a mere shekel. The second rule is that whoever comes in second place will have to pay me the figure offered. Clear?” Yoni concluded to a resounding “Yes” from the audience.

“Okay, on your marks, get set, go!” It was Ilan who jumped first and shouted, “One shekel” while thinking to himself, "I can earn 49 shekel if I win, it is certainly worth risking one shekel to win the pot." "Two shekel," shouted Yaniv. "Wait a minute," pondered Ilan, "I'm just going to give my shekel to Yoni just like that! No way!" “Three shekel," yelled Ilan. "Four shekel." "Five..." "Ten..." "Twenty-five..." "Forty-two!..." Until Ilan shouted, "Forty-nine shekel!” Surprisingly, Yaniv countered, “Fifty. Yes, fifty shekel, for a fifty-shekel bill!" Ilan thought, “I'm not going to be the loser and pay 49 shekel... Fifty-one shekel!” Ilan blurted to the shock of the crowd. “This way, I will pay only one shekel,” Ilan explained to a shocked Itamar who was standing next to him. “Fifty-two,” shouted Yaniv. “Fifty-three..." "One hundred shekel..." "One hundred fifty...” “Two hundred forty-nine...” "Two hundred and... Okay STOP!” announced Yoni. “I see that the auction has gotten out of control, we have reached a point where two people are willing to pay me two hundred and fifty shekel for a simple bill of fifty shekel! First thing, I want to make it clear that the auction is cancelled. I knew in advance that this was what would happen. I never meant to seriously give away the fifty at all." Ilan and Yaniv breathed a sigh of relief, the tension almost drove them out of their minds. Yoni continued, “Do you think the participants here behaved irrational? Well, the experiment has been conducted dozens of times, and it has also been conducted on very intelligent people such as students and even professors. In all cases the amount that the bidder offered ended up being many times more than the bill that was up for auction. Now, do you know the secret? It is not to enter this auction at all, because upon participation, you feel strongly compelled to get deeply involved. Before you know it you are unable to get out without suffering heavy damage.”

Yoni looked into the eyes of the many campers and staff and continued, “The bigger secret is that people are not willing to admit their own mistake even if they continue to lose more and more. In the beginning, the damage was only one shekel, but no one wants to just throw away a shekel. So, the person increases their bid and thus increases the risk of losing even more.” Yoni surveyed the captivated campers and concluded, “The message I wanted to convey is that there are people who suddenly discover at the age of twenty that there is truth and meaning. True, inner and spiritual meaning to life. When this realization hits home they stop and think, 'What? I lived mistakenly for twenty years? It cannot be!' It is easier for one to bury their head in the sand and get on with life. Then, at age eighty they will say to themselves even more forcefully, 'What? You want to tell me that my whole life I have been missing the point!? No way!' Thus, their ways will continue astray until the end, all because they were not ready to admit the truth when they were just starting their journey through life. It’s the same with us. Even if we did make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that we must lose everything, we have to know how to admit our mistake, get out of the dilemma in time, and move on successfully!"

Rabbi Leeor Dahan, a graduate of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim/RSA, is well versed in aspects of halachah and has written commentary on the Mishnah Berurah, and Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Dahan encourages his congregants at Kehilat Avodat Hashem in Hillcrest, Queens to find time in their day for the study of Torah and associated halachic customs.

 By Rabbi Leeor Dahan