In this week’s reading (Eikev), the Torah warns us that after the people enter Israel, they may be prone to think only about their own accomplishments, and forget the source of all blessings: “and you become haughty, and forget HaShem your G-d who brought you out from Egypt, from the house of slavery… and you say in your heart, my own might and the strength of my hand have made me all of this wealth.” [Dev. 8:14, 17]
This is something that can affect all of us. Maimonides says that we should look for the middle ground, that even bad traits have their place (meaning, sometimes it is right to appear angry, for example), but that haughtiness is the exception. There is never a time to be “full of ourselves.”
This does not mean we should fail to appreciate our gifts. Moshe was the leader and teacher of the Jewish people, he spoke directly with G-d, and received the Torah and taught it to us. But the Torah also testifies that he was more humble than anyone — and the Torah doesn’t exaggerate!
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis / Torah.org
Note from the Director
“Talent on Loan from G-d”
It seems almost an impossibility to be able to lead millions of people on a journey across great distances for forty years and even be able to talk to God “face-to-face” and yet be considered “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). How is this possible, especially given some of our common dictionary definitions for this word?
- not proud or arrogant; modest: “to be humble although successful”.
- having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.: “In the presence of so many world-famous writers I felt very humble”.
- low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; “lowly: of humble origin; a humble home”.
- courteously respectful: “In my humble opinion you are wrong”.
- low in height, level, etc.; small in size: “a humble member of the galaxy”.
Yet, we don’t really think of Moses as arrogant, either. According to Rabbi Menken, he couldn’t have been:
Rav Shamshon Rephael Hirsch writes that arrogance is the first step towards forgetting G-d. Moshe never ignored his gifts, but he also recognized where they came from. What prevents us from becoming arrogant or haughty is the appreciation that everything we have is a gift.
How does that work for the rest of us, particularly when we’re not the leader of millions (most of us) and don’t talk to God the way Moses talked to God (I don’t know anyone who does that, although a few people claim to have this ability)? It seems like a lot of people either take no credit at all for what they do well or they take all the credit for everything that happens good in their lives and in the lives of others. Should we give total credit to God for everything at our expense or take credit for everything, leaving no room for God? Where is the balance? How does this “partnership” between people and God work?
We were all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Think of this as meaning that God created us with a certain configuration of wiring and programming. We “naturally” have certain personality traits, talents, and characteristics that are unique to us. Some give us the ability to easily accomplish particular tasks, like a person who just “naturally” draws well, sings well, or is a gifted carpenter. Other characteristics we find we must master and bring under our control, such as a quick temper or a tendency to like alcohol too much.
When things go well, sometimes because of our talents, we tend to credit ourselves and feel that we’re really great. When things go badly, sometimes because of our “evil inclination” or the character traits that we need to control, we tend to either blame God for how He made us, or to suddenly remember God and beg for His forgiveness and help. We see this in Rabbi Menken’s commentary about how Moses warned the Children of Israel against haughtiness. Ironically, the answer is in a very simple but unusual (from a Christian point of view) commandment:
And you shall eat and be satisfied, and you shall thank the Lord your God for the good land which he has given you. –Deuteronomy 8:10
In Judaism, this is one of the 613 commandments that define a Jew’s obligations to God and to other people. This has resulted in the blessing of Birkat Hamazon or “Grace After Meals” being said after eating, as opposed to the Christian tradition of blessing God (sometimes at length) before a meal.
There’s a reason for this as stated by Rabbi Menken:
The Ohr Gedalyahu, Rabbi Gedalyah Schorr zt”l, tells us that the holy Kabbalistic work, the Zohar, says that the Torah frequently relates the positive and the negative. Our reading, he says, is one example of this concept. The Torah goes on to warn us that after we are sated, we can make a tragic mistake.
“Guard yourselves lest you forget HaShem your G-d… lest you eat and be satisfied, and build good houses and dwell therein… and you instill pride in your hearts and forget HaShem your G-d who took you out from Egypt, from the house of slavery… and you say in your hearts, ‘my strength and the might of my hand made me all of this great wealth!'” [8:11-17] Say a blessing recognizing that it all comes from G-d, to avoid the false claim that your own abilities brought you wealth.
It’s when we are successful and satisfied that we most need to connect to God. It’s not a sin to ask for His help when we are hurt or scared or desperate, but He must be a part of everything in our lives, to good and the bad alike, or we will forget Him. We might also forget ourselves and who He made us to be.
There is a portion of the morning prayers called Birkat HaShachar that observant Jews say every day where the person thanks God for various attributes and circumstances (the full text in English and Hebrew is found on this site as a PDF). This includes thanking God for giving us (in this context, “us” are the Jews reciting these blessings) discernment, for making us free, for making us in His Image, and so on. This, like the Birkat Hamazon, is also a good model for Christians to consider because it illustrates the partnership between people and God.
Yes, God made us and all things come from God, but He made us to possess certain “innate” talents and abilities. How we choose to use those abilities is up to us, but that they are there is both a testament to God’s mastery over Creation and the fact that we have control of what we possess as human attributes. We are not puppets on God’s string. We can take pride in our achievements and thank God for having made us the way He did at the same time.
I think that’s how Moses approached his own life and in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves, I think that’s how we can approach life, too. We can do what Moses did, by never forgetting the God who created us.
Whoever possesses the following three traits is of the disciples of our father Abraham; the disciples of our father Abraham have a good eye, a meek spirit and a humble soul. The disciples of our father Abraham benefit in this world and inherit the World To Come, and is stated, “To bequeath to those who love Me there is, and their treasures I shall fill.” –Pirkei Avot 5:19