The Arrogant are Brought Low

aLOnE

During this time of isolation and quarantining, we are all learning a lot about ourselves and those with whom we share living space. This experience is not as harrowing as what others have faced in the past, but it is traumatic nonetheless.

There is a kind of leveling experience about the whole thing. The COVID-19 virus has struck the powerful and the weak, the wealthy and the poor, the famous and the obscure. Suddenly, whatever sense of security we might think we have has been challenged. It is a humbling experience for sure.

Jewish Mussar teaching tells us that humility is not about “bashing one’s self;” it is not making one’s self a doormat for others to walk all over. Rather, it is about filling one’s proper place and space in God’s creation. There are times when we must promote ourselves and speak up; there are other times when we must take a step back and keep silent. Being humble means knowing which is which and then acting (or not acting) accordingly.

Moses was considered to be the most humble servant of God. There were times when he had to speak up, chastise the people, and even challenge the Lord. Other times, he had to take direction from God without question or let others assume leadership in given situations. He knew his place; Moses was humble before God and his fellow human beings.

Our weekly Torah portion, Vayikra, hints at this trait in Moses. The very first word in Hebrew, Vayikra, concludes with the letter Alef. In Torah scrolls there is a longstanding tradition to write the Alef smaller than the other letters; it is quite striking. The word means “And [God] called out….” God was calling out to Moses but was able to do so in a diminished way–represented by the small Alef. God didn’t need to scream to get Moses’ attention. Moses could be reached in a soft way due to his humility.

I don’t know what we are supposed to learn from this whole COVID-19 crisis. Perhaps one of the lessons is about our absolute vulnerability as human beings. Look how our lives have been turned upside-down in just a matter of a few weeks. That vulnerability should lead us all to be a bit more humble. We should recognize that we are not all-powerful and cannot control everything. At the same time, as Mussar teaches, we should understand that we are made for great things; we have the power to make the world better and to overcome adversity.

Wishing us all a little more humility in these COVID-19 days…and after as well.

Editing my Life Speech

This coming Shabbat morning we begin our reading of the Book of Deuteronomy, the final book of the Torah.  Although many biblical scholars assert that this book was written at a much later time, traditionally it is viewed as Moses’ final words (a lot of them) to the Israelites as they were about to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land.  Moses would not be joining them, so he repeats many of the previous laws and clarifies others, much in the way that a parent might remind his/her children before they head off to school, camp, a date, etc.

Deuteronomy plays like a kind of “greatest hits,” bringing us the Shema as well as a second recitation of the Ten Commandments.  Ritual regulations are discussed, but there is a particular emphasis on what would be necessary for the people to create a just and peaceful society in their new homeland.  There is also a strong sense of Moses’ own personal reflections and emotional state as he reaches the end of his tenure as prophet and leader.

The Book of Deuteronomy comes as a signal that the High Holidays are not that far away.  In several weeks we will be at Elul…and we all know what comes after that.  We approach a time of reflection—not unlike what I imagine Moses must have done as he approached the end of his life.  We wonder how we have done, what it was all about, how we will be remembered.

There are times when I ask myself if I were delivering my final address, what would I say?  What have I accomplished?  What meaning has there been in my life?  How will others remember me?  What would I want my descendants to know?  The truth is that we write this speech every day through our thoughts, words and actions.  As we dive into the Book of Deuteronomy, let us answer those questions…and if we do not like the responses, it is never too late to begin editing our lives.