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Peter J. Rubinstein
On Humility & Arrogance (Parashat Eikev)

Peter J. Rubinstein  |  August 10, 2012

Very very rarely, there is a portion in which rabbis have a sense that they really don’t need to say anything.  Not that I won’t, but this is one of those portions that is so clearly defined, and really preaches its own sermon and teaches its own lesson. 

It is Eikev.   “Eikev” as you know is in the name “Yaakov,” it means “heel,” and the portion starts by saying as a result of—in other words, on the heel of—whatever you do, such and such will happen.

We’re going to be reading from the chapter 8, verses 11 through 18.  You have it on your order of service, and if you don’t have and you’d like somebody to bring one to you, just raise your hand.  So our shamashim are so terrific, they made sure you all got it.

We’re going to read this not only because it’s important to hear the words and to pay attention to it before we read it from the Torah itself, but also so those who may be watching or listening in over the phone know what we’re reading.

This is part of the second discourse.  It is said that these are Moses’ words.  He’s reviewing history and actually trying to derive some lessons from the history that the people have passed through as they’ve wandered through the desert.

The framing lesson is about humility and arrogance.  But along the way there are other very important pieces of advice.  In fact one of the first pieces of advice is built into the beginning and it has to do with a piece of financial advice for those who would want to be prosperous.

So if you think that there’s anything new under the sun, you just have to read the Torah and realize that when Moses is speaking about the people as well as what they can be, he is so well defining the challenges that face us.  So let’s just take a look at it and read it.

“Take care lest you forget the Lord your God, and fail to keep His commandments, His rules, and His laws, which I enjoin upon you today.  When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in”—pay attention to this— “and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you have has prospered…”

Actually the Talmud derives a lesson from this, and says that if you want to be prosperous, you have to invest in three ways.  And it’s spelled out right here: firstly you have to build fine houses, so what’s the first way?  Real estate.  Your herds and flocks have multiplied, which is… you have possessions, right?  So in other words, you have to invest in real estate, acquire possessions, and then what is the third thing you have to do?  You have to have gold and silver—in other words, you have to have fluidity.  You have to have cash on hand.  And in fact, that’s the lesson, that’s actually a financial teaching and it says that if you want to be prosperous, real estate, buy art [laughter], and have a healthy bank account.

And that’s what it means to be prosperous.

But then “beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage….”  In other words, Egypt becomes a metaphor for having nothing.  It’s having no possessions, certainly having no freedom, having no ability to determine one’s own fate.

You have to remember those days, this God “who led you through the great and terrible wilderness with its seraph serpents and scorpions, a parched land with no water in it, who brought forth water for you….”  In other words the very essentials.  You survived only because God was in your life providing these essentials, and “fed you in the wilderness with manna, which your fathers had never known, in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end.”

I had lunch with one of our members. (I may use this in a High Holiday sermon, I’m not sure.)  He has tremendous wealth—and yet his children have terrific values.  And he told me when his children were young, he said,  “The only thing I can’t give you is being poor.”  Because he was born in Brooklyn, he had to grow up through that, and the values that come from not having are values that you have to teach when you do have.  He was very aware of that.

And this text is saying that your ancestors had nothing.  You may have not have possessions, but they didn’t even have freedom or the right to determine their own fate.  So you have to remember that, because if you don’t, you may say,  “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.”  And that kind of arrogance is the kind of arrogance that is identified with idolatry.

When you start to put yourself up as God in your own life, you are no better in His mind than the men and women who were bowing down before idols in the desert.  When you start to think that way of yourself, that you have deserved, whether it’s by even performing the mitzvot—in other words,  “I perform the mitzvot, therefore I got what I deserved”—you start doing that and you have entered the realm of idolatry, and your arrogance is deadly.

And this portion tends to show that. It says,  “Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth.”  In fact, there’s a teaching that says that if you had two men of equal wealth, the one who was living in a small town and has tremendous wealth, much greater than any, that person believes,  “I am like God in their lives.”  Whereas a person with the same wealth who lives among people with equal wealth would understand,  “I’m no more special than anyone else.” And the fact is, if you start to believe that your wealth puts you above others, you are not only becoming idolatrous, but you are denying the existence of God.

And therefore, that sense of arrogance is one that one has to guard against, and then you have to remember that God is the one who helps you along the way.  In fact, none of us deserves what we have.  The fact is, whatever we have doesn’t make us better than those who don’t have.  And if we think that it does, we are defaming God and defiling ourselves.

Anyway, there is one commentary I just want you to hear to give a certain indication of modesty and humility, and it’s a good test for each of us.

“Indications of humility and that you are not arrogant is if you’re abused, even with the means to retaliate, you don’t.  You withhold your anger.  If praised, you are humbled by that thought, even to the point that you could do better.”  That of course is our parents playing in our ears.   “If prosperous, be kind to those who need help, and greet others when meeting them.” In other words, you are never above anyone else, and you need to share whatever you have with others.  The fourth is,  “If another has hurt you, you still have to treat them with kindness,” and lastly,  “Speak quietly and gently to family and to all you meet.”

So there’s a bit of a checklist to see if in fact you are humble, modest.  Hopefully this is a portion to which we can return whenever we want to check ourselves.  And I would say to you this is an audit of one’s humility or modesty, and God willing, we will always wind up on the proper side of the balance.

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