Behaalotekha: On tension between egotism, humility


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

Chaim Nachman Bialik, father of modern Hebrew literature, is best known to contemporary Jews for his poem "The Sabbath Bride," now included in the Shabbat liturgy. Shortly before his death in 1934, newspapers speculated that he would be awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. Although the distinction would have been well deserved, Bialik was not accorded the coveted honor. When asked for his reaction, Bialik is reputed to have said, "I am very glad that I did not win the prize. Now everyone is my friend and feels sorry for me and is angry on my behalf.

"My friends will say, `Isn't that a scandal? Imagine such a thing — Bialik, the great poet, did not get the Nobel Prize and look who they gave it to — to that other individual who cannot even hold a candle to Bialik.'

"On the other hand, if I had been awarded the Nobel Prize, some of the same people who are now indignant on my account would have said, `What's so wonderful about getting the Nobel Prize? Why, even that poet Bialik got one!'"

The tension between humility and self-absorption apparent in this anecdote is also demonstrated in the description of the major protagonists in ancient Israelite redemption. Moses, noted for his meekness, is described in this week's Torah portion, Behaalotekha, as unpretentious:

"Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth" (Numbers 12:3). Moses earned this description through his actions. At great personal risk, he defended a Hebrew slave who was being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster. He confronted the mighty Pharaoh, led the Israelite band of slaves through the wilderness, and pleaded on their behalf when they strayed and built the Golden Calf. Although he did, on occasion, complain about the difficulty of his job, he was never self-absorbed, arrogant, or haughty, and never used his accomplishments for personal gain.

Pharaoh, portrayed as arrogant and self-aggrandizing, stands in sharp contrast to Moses. The Midrash attributes to Pharaoh this egotistical, haughty remark: "There is none as exalted as I. The Nile River is mine, and I have made it for myself" (Yalkut I, 182).

It was easy for the rabbis to extrapolate that attitude from the scene in which Moses spoke to Pharaoh on God's behalf: "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, `How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?'" (Exodus 10:3). Pharaoh's self-importance, the antithesis of Moses' humility, bids students of the Torah to pause and consider both ends of this spectrum of human behavior.

News accounts have included reports of a number of individuals who do not serve as models of humility: A philanthropist, successful businessman and ambassador embellished his war record, resulting in disinterment from Arlington National Cemetery; a disgraced California federal district judge fabricated an inspirational story about a murdered sibling; the Navy's highest ranking officer committed suicide when it was discovered that two combat decorations had not been earned; and a journalist concocted a Pulitzer Prize-winning story about a child heroin addict.

Such resumé embellishment was carried to extreme in the life of Ferdinand Waldo DeMara Jr., the man who inspired the movie "The Great Impostor." DeMara borrowed the names and credentials of other people, assuming many different personas including those of a prison warden, a philosophy professor and even a surgeon.

Individuals fall into the trap of resumé embellishment because they wish to tell others what they would like to be rather than who they are. It is estimated that fully one-third of all resumés contain some degree of creative writing.

Because most mortals are neither saints nor sinners, there must be some kind of balance between self-absorption and humility. It is found in the words of Rabbi Bunam, who once cautioned his disciples: "Everyone should have two pockets so that he can reach into one or the other, according to his needs. In the right pocket should be the words, `For my sake the world was created,' and in the left, `I am but dust and ashes.'"