The humble, the few

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Humility is a fragile commodity. Proverbs believes that it comes with tragedy. Once you’ve suffered, your pride diminishes. Humility takes over. But we know, unfortunately, that it can take more than harsh circumstances to cripple the mature ego. Just take a look at one of the Talmud’s most astonishing tales. King Jeraboam, a notoriously wicked king in the Bible’s annals, was—the Talmud records—barred from the world to come.

But God seized Jeraboam’s garment and gave him a chance to change. God said to him: “Repent, and you and I and the son of Jesse (King David) will promenade in the Garden of Eden” (BT Sanhedrin 102a).

I don’t know about you, but this image amuses me. In this fantasy, God tried to bribe Jeraboam to good behavior by offering him a permanent stroll in paradise with God and our most beloved ruler, King David. Sounds like a good deal. But Jeraboam wanted to know more before he agreed and asked God a question that betrayed himself: “Who will go first?” Before he signed on, Jeraboam wanted to know who would enter the garden first. When God told him that David would go first, Jeraboam refused. He forfeited life in the world to come out of personal insult. If Jeraboam couldn’t go first, he wasn’t going.

In Hebrew, the word for honor is kavod, which also means weight. If something is kaved, it is heavy. Linguistically, honor is a burden; it both gives us gravitas but also weighs us down with all kinds of anxieties about the way that we show up in front of others and the ego stroking we so often need from others. Right after our verse from Proverbs above, we find a causal relationship between honor and the capacity to hear someone else. “To answer a man before hearing him out is foolish and disgraceful” (18:13). If I am too full of myself, I will never be able to hear you.

One of religion’s great teachings is keeping the ego in check and promoting humility. In Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists (where I think he does a much better job selling religion than selling atheism), he discusses the problems of freedom from authority and our inability to replace the values of religion—community, kindness, moral depth, to name only a few—with equally compelling modern idioms to achieve similar goals without divine enforcement. We moderns resent when someone else tells us what to do but, he confesses, in our weaker moments; “Our deepest wish may be that someone would come along and save us from ourselves.”

This is particularly true, he observes, when it comes to the ego. Most societal structures today promote self-esteem while religion tries to minimize the self for the sake of the other. It scrapes away at the ego to promote humility. Church and synagogue are not the best places to feel great about yourself. They are places that specialize in introspection and improvement. As de Botton says:

“In our more arrogant moments, the sin of pride...takes over our personalities and shuts us off those around us. We become dull to others when all we seek to do is assert how well things are going for us, just as friendship has a chance to grow only when we dare to share what we are afraid of and regret.”

What humbles us? What helps us appreciate that we are small and vulnerable? Even those with great power suffer moments of tremendous insecurity. Insecurity often masks itself as toughness and impenetrable confidence. Sometimes we obsess over the way others think about us and forfeit much loftier goals as a result. Just ask Jeraboam.

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places(OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

Editor’s note: This article is distributed with permission of Dr. Erica Brown. Subscribe to her “Weekly Jewish Wisdom” list at http://leadingwithmeaning.com.

Posted on April 23, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, Torah Commentary.