The Human Challenge, Part II
Chapter 6, Mishna 6, Ways 34-36(b)
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Torah is greater than priesthood and kingship, for kingship is acquired
with 30 qualities, priesthood is acquired with 24, whereas the Torah is
acquired with 48 ways. These are: ... (34) distancing oneself from honor,
(35) not being arrogant in one's studies, (36) not enjoying instructing
Last week we began to look at the qualities of our mishna, all of them
relating to the Torah scholar's avoidance of honor. As we saw, not only does
the scholar not actively pursue honor, but he does not even take pride in
his learning -- for he feels he is doing no more than required of him.
Finally, he does not even *like* his position or the responsibility of
admonishing others and rendering decisions in Jewish law. We also noted some
of the sharp criticisms the Talmud levels against the arrogant person, how
he is compared to an idolater and how G-d Himself states, "He and I cannot
dwell together in this world." Arrogance seems to be the antithesis of
everything Judaism stands for, and must be completely wiped out from our way
of behaving and thinking.
We then asked if arrogance is really so bad altogether. Don't people have a
natural need for recognition, to be noticed, for a little positive
reinforcement? Any good teacher or parent knows what a valuable tool
positive reinforcement is -- especially in the presence of others. Is that
just feeding on the child's negative tendencies? And what about the simple
desire to feel good about ourselves -- at least for our religious
accomplishments? The scholar of our mishna is not even proud *to himself*
for his Torah study! Is self-pride really so negative and unjustified? Isn't
it human nature? In fact, how could the scholar *not* feel just a little bit
proud of his achievements?
We quoted further the incident with R. Elazar son of R. Shimon who *was*
overly proud of his Torah study and had nothing but a nasty remark for the
ugly (read: sinful) individual he chanced upon. How was it that the rabbi --
for the perfectly understandable "fault" of being proud of himself --
slipped all the way down to nastiness and condescension -- the absolute
antithesis of the qualities true Torah study is supposed to engender?
We read in Jeremiah (9:22-3): "Thus says the L-rd, 'Let not the wise man
praise himself for his wisdom, nor the strong man for his strength, nor the
rich man for his wealth. But rather for this shall he praise himself:
comprehend and know Me... for this is what I want,' says the L-rd." The
simple understanding of these verses, based upon the context, is that one
should not reassure himself that his wisdom, strength or wealth will save
him from G-d's exacting justice.
There is a deeper idea, however (heard from R. Berel Wein). One should not
"praise himself" -- brag or feel pride -- because of his religious
accomplishments. Don't think you're G-d's great gift to mankind because in
your wisdom you mastered the entire Talmud, because in your strength you
conquered your passions, or because you have a wing of a Jewish institution
named after you. Don't think you've done G-d any great favors by doing just
what He created you to do (if even that). Don't use your achievements to
pump yourself up, becoming high and mighty in your vanity. That is a form of
self-worship -- what the Sages call idolatry -- using even the good that you
do to serve yourself rather than G-d. And there is no room for such an
attitude in Judaism.
For one thing alone can we feel pride: for "knowing" G-d. How do we know
G-d? By getting closer to Him and building a relationship with Him. If we
use our mitzvos (good deeds) to pump ourselves up -- to make ourselves feel
good, then in a way we are serving ourselves at the expense of serving G-d.
If *I* am proud for what *I* have accomplished then I am self-centered, and
if that is my primary focus it drives me away from G-d's presence rather
than drawing me closer.
If, however, I perform the mitzvos because it is G-d's will -- in order to
get closer to Him -- then I may feel pride. My pride lies in the ecstatic
knowledge that I have connected with my G-d, the ultimate and infinite
source of existence, and that I have *annulled* myself before His infinity.
I feel great, but it is not *my* greatness; it is G-d's greatness which I
have become a part of. And standing in G-d's presence is both humbling and
crushing. Although it is an exhilarating and invigorating experience -- the
one our souls truly crave above all else -- we enter G-d's presence with the
submissive sense of our own smallness and insignificance. And in our
emptiness and humility, we can truly be proud.
The Hebrew word for "honor", as used in our mishna, is "kavod". This relates
closely to the word "kavaid" or heavy. One who seeks honor is "heavy" or
full of himself. Rather than connecting himself to G-d, he weighs himself
down -- increasing the distance between himself and G-d -- attempting to
fill an empty soul with a selfish sense of independent worth. This is not
possible. The soul's true worth is in that it stems from G-d and can
condition itself to reconnect with its source. If a human soul feels its
emptiness and insignificance, it can become truly great -- and become proud
of itself in the process.
This is one of the great human challenges. There is an enormous and inborn
human drive for honor -- not so much to lord over others (though that's a
pretty darn strong one too) but just to feel we *exist*. As human beings who
want to express our existence we need to accomplish -- to feel we are *real*
people who create and make a difference in the world beyond. Yet doing for
our own sakes is selfish and pulls us away from G-d -- towards what the
Sages call idolatry. G-d instead challenges us: do it for G-d's sake. Use
your deeds to move closer to G-d, humbling and negating yourself before His
grandeur, rather than pumping up your own ego. If you do so, you make the
ultimate sacrifice -- exchanging empty pride with humility and closeness to
G-d. And by submitting and humbling yourself -- by swallowing your pride --
you have made the greatest sacrifice achievable -- and you have achieved
eternity. And this can be your greatest source of pride.
Text Copyright © 2011 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.