Chapter 2, Law 3(a)
The World Isn't Big Enough
"There are certain character traits which a person is forbidden to
accustom himself in, even in moderation. Rather, he must distance himself
to the opposite extreme. One such trait is haughtiness. For the ideal path
is not that one be humble ('anav') alone; he must be lowly of spirit
('shefal ru'ach'), and exceedingly unassuming ('rucho nemucha'). Likewise
it is said of Moses that he was 'very humble' (Numbers 12:3) -- not merely
humble. So too did the Sages command us: 'Be exceedingly lowly of spirit'
(Pirkei Avos 4:4 (torah.org/learning/pirkei-avos/chapter4-
4.html)). The Sages likewise stated that one conceited of heart has
denied G-d, as the verse states: "Lest your heart grows haughty and you
forget the L-rd your G-d" (Deut. 8:14; Talmud Sotah 4b). The Sages stated
further, "Damned if one has arrogance... even partially" (Talmud ibid.
In past weeks we discussed the Rambam's maxim of pursuing the Golden Mean.
We should always follow the middle path in life and in all our traits, not
veering to either extreme. Here the Rambam presents the first of two
exceptions to his principle: arrogance.
The Rambam quotes just a few statements of the Sages which condemn
arrogance. One who is conceited "forgets" G-d. If you're the center of
your own universe, you have left little room for G-d. You may be
performing all sorts of great and wonderful deeds, but you may well be
serving yourself, inflating your own ego rather than raising G-d's honor.
The Talmud likewise states that the egotist, no matter how much he has
accomplished for G-d, "will not be clear of the judgment of Gehenna"
(Sotah 4b). As much as you've done, to some extent you're serving
yourself. Whereas regarding other traits there's a time for everything --
a time to be easygoing and a time to be intense, a time for sensitivity
and a time for stoicism, etc. -- there is never room in this universe to
serve yourself. For the more you are serving and pumping up yourself, the
less you are serving G-d.
In the same vein the Talmud there (5a) states: "Regarding any person who
has arrogance the L-rd says, 'He and I cannot dwell together in the
world.'" This here world isn't big enough for the two of us. Only one
being can dwell in the center of the universe. You either serve G-d or you
serve yourself -- and there is no middle ground. You simply cannot have it
The Talmud there coins another choice phrase, which sheds much light on
just how unlivable life is for the egotist: "Whoever has arrogance, the
slightest breeze will 'sully' (unravel) him." It takes very little to set
off the egotist. If you can't admit to human failings -- or you have to
show your fellow (or spouse) you are ALWAYS right, you will never be at
ease. One who cannot humble himself and admit his imperfections will
always live in fear -- fear of being found out. He'll come down like a ton
of bricks on anyone who slights him, who even implies he has has faults
and needs improvement. Anything you tell him is either wrong or he knew
already. (Remind you of anyone you know? ;-) (The good employee gets the
manager to think it was his idea. ;-) And that is just not a way to
live. When we feign infallibility we are living an illusion -- we are
playing god. And we can only play such a game so long.
(I can't resist quoting a comic strip here. :-) Charlie Brown says to Lucy
in the course of conversation, "I mean, you're not perfect, you
know." She gives him such a shocked, bug-eyed look, that he walks off
muttering, "I've just never seen anyone look so insulted
One, however, who readily admits he is not perfect will be much harder to
ruffle. I know I'm human; I harbor no illusions about my talents and
abilities. And a personal slight or a few inconveniences will not really
unsettle me. I've always felt one of the most important prerequisites for
marriage (and all relationships) is the ability to learn from one's
mistakes. Our spouses might be perfect but we certainly aren't. And the
recognition that I need to admit failure and improve is the first step
towards building meaningful relationships.
Thus, the Talmud (and Rambam here) tell us we must avoid arrogance to an
absolute extreme. We must be entirely self-effacing. We must not see our
talents as our own at all. They were gifts entrusted to us by G-d -- to be
used in the manner He wishes. The more we value ourselves for that which G-
d has granted us the more we are taking what is G-d's and imagining it is
ours. And as above, in this there can be no middle ground. This is not a
matter of relativity, of finding the proper balance in our character
traits. It is the basic issue of whom we are worshiping.
There is, however, a basic difficulty with this week's law. In Chapter 1
Law 5 the Rambam wrote clearly that the wise man is one who is only
moderately humble. One who by contrast eschews haughtiness to an extreme
is considered pious. The implication is clearly that we should follow the
middle path in arrogance vs. humility. We will G-d willing discuss this at
length next week.
Text Copyright © 2008 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org