Haughtiness: “I built this all myself”
This week our parsha is going to continue with the theme of the last couple weeks, Moses is going to continue warning the Israelites, and reminding them of everything he has taught them. Herein he is going to tell us all what to look out for, what we should protect ourselves against, here at the start of the second aliyah:
“Beware that you do not forget
Hashem your G-d
in not keeping His commandments
and ordinances and statutes
which I have command you this day.”
| Hishamer lecha pen-tishkach
| et-Hashem Eloheicha
| levilti shmor mitzvotav
| umishpatav vechukotav
| asher anochi metzavecha ha-yom.
We are told that we should not forget G-d, how do we do this? By not being shomer mitzvot – by not keeping the commandments. We show that we don’t really remember G-d when we don’t keep His chukim and mishpatim – the reasonable commands and the supra-rational commands of Torah. (see Parshat Chukat 2011) If we do not keep all the commandments, even the ones we don’t understand and find reasonable, we are forgetting Hashem.
There are all these mitzvot written into the Torah that we are to keep. They are summarized in the Ten Commandments, five sayings defining our responsibilities to G-d and five defining our responsibilities to our fellow man. These have already been referenced last week explicitly (see Parshat Ve’etchanan 2012), and we will continuously see them mentioned as we continue on in this summary of the Torah in Deuteronomy. Our sages recognize 613 commandments, that are summarized in these ten. Our sages further distill them down according to the teachings of Hillel and Akiva; to love Hashem our G-d and to love our neighbor as ourself. We cannot keep the Torah by only keeping half of it, we need to keep our responsibilities to both G-d and mankind.
How is this forgetting G-d if we don’t keep all these mitzvot? How can one be forgetting something that they are purposely avoiding?
That is precisely the point here, you see this forgetting is not just that one is merely ignorant of it and it slips ones mind. Our Torah calls us out to not let G-d be forgotten (nish’kach) in our lives, because generally to be forgotten (hushekach) is a deliberate putting out of one’s mind; its intentional forgetting. A better way of saying it would probably be ignoring.
One would wonder, what would occupy someone to the point that they would want to ignore doing mitzvot, from doing good deeds at every moment that they could? Is it hardship and trials? Is one too busy making a living? What could it be? Well the answer is yes, and no. Believe it or not people would find themselves too busy, too occupied to take time out of their busy schedules to remember their responsibilities to mitzvot. The Torah expresses this as it goes on with the text. What does it warn us will lead to us intentionally forgetting our responsibilities to mitzvot? Notice what is says:
“…lest you eat and are satisfied,
and you build fine houses and live in them
And your heards and your flocks multiply,
and your silver and gold increase,
and all you have increases…”
| Pen-tochal vesavata
| uvatim tovim tivneh veyashavta.
| Uvekarcha vetzoncha yirbeyun
| vechesef vezahav yirbeh-lach
| vechol asher-lecha yirbeh.
Here Moses warns us against getting distracted and ignoring our Torah responsibilities, because our attention instead turns to our own satisfaction and gratification. Notice the tone here, it’s not that the Torah is saying that there is anything wrong with abundance and wealth, in fact that is one of the promises of keeping this Torah is that we will be blessed and satiated. It’s not even necessarily abhorring the finer things, like really nice houses. Thats not what it’s saying. What it warns us against is the attitude that we can develop once we have the finner things in life, and live in excess:
“…and grow haughty in your heart
and forget Hashem your G-d
who brought you out of the land of Egypt
out of the house of slavery.”
| Veram levavecha
| veshachachta et-Hashem Eloheicha
| hamotzi’acha me’eretz Mitzrayim
| mibeit avadim
The Torah warns that often time when people are well-off and live in excess they tend to become haughty; rum in Hebrew, which means to be lifted up. But is also plainly means many other things in ordinary language, such as being loud (Deut. 27:14), or tall in stature (Deut. 1:28). The idea is that one is comparatively higher and more noticeable than another (Isaiah 2:12). This attitude is not innocuous, as seen in this last example the reason implied is with the intent to humble other people. If we doubt this, it is spelled out for us time and time again in the Psalms and Proverbs that this is an attitude of arrogance (Proverbs 6:17; Proverbs 30:13; Psalm 131:1). It means to be defiant and presumptuous (Numbers 15:3). In one example we even see this as so revolting to G-d that He removed King Nebuchadnezzar from his throne for his presumptuous arrogance (Daniel 5:20).
Its not necessarily that G-d has a problem with people living in access and becoming lofty, its seems that people in this situation tend to make themselves alienated from G-d and doing goodly things. For this reason the scriptures warn us:
“Even though Hashem is high
He regards the lowly
and the proud He knows from afar.”
כִּי–רָם יְוָ, |
וְשָׁפָל יִרְאֶה; |
וְגָבֹהַּ, מִמֶּרְחָק יְיֵדָע. |
The scriptures is telling us a few things in this. Its hard for a person of excess to be close to G-d and good things because they set themselves above and higher than others. However it also contrasts a difference in the nature of G-d, presenting us with a trait that we should emulate: that even though G-d is lofty He is close to the lowly. He still gives consideration to the humble. But the haughty are so high up in their arrogance and self-pride that they are far off from anywhere G-d can be found.
What is really sad is that given our Jewish experience of hardship we should find an attitude of aloofness abhorrent. Namely, for the reason that this parsha points out, because when we show arrogance we are forgetting that we were once slaves in Egypt. We forget the lowly background that we came from, we should have no room for such arrogance. How is it therefore possible for one to be able to still harbor such a proud and pretentious attitude (gavoach).
As we continue on through this parsha in the next few verses Moses begins to recount the suffering and hardships that the Israelites experienced in the desert. They were lead through a wilderness, filled with dangers, went thirsty, went hungry and were afflicted in every imaginable way. But all of this was for a purpose, so that the people would be humbled for their benefit in the end. (v.15-16) He broke us down in order to build us up, to test us in a way that is akin to building endurance in the body. All these trials were to make us stronger and for our benefit. Furthermore G-d didn’t just leave us out there to suffer, He provided for our needs in miraculous and unprecedented ways.
G-d warns us against the tendency to stand back after one reaches their goals and gains their acquisitions to look back on that hardship of one’s rise and instead of being humbled become inclined to arrogance through it. Not giving proper consideration to all the help they received from G-d along the way in order to make that possible as well.
G-d through Moses begins to finish up this statement of what attitude and mindset we are to avoid in our success:
“…and [yet] in your heart you say,
‘My strength and the might of my hand
has gotten me all this wealth.”
| Ve’amarta bilvavecha
| kochi ve’otzem yadi
| asah li et-hachayil hazeh.
G-d warns us that it might be true that we came from nothing. But instead of remembering the lowly conditions we came from, instead we only remember the hardships while ignoring all the help we got along the way that helped make that possible. In the end one foolishly believes and begins to presumptuously profess that they built everything they had with their own two hands. It was their struggle that made it happen. It was their blood, sweat and tears that went into it. That is why they are so proud and haughty. It was all them, so now this is all theirs alone.
But in the end this lofty attitude is false and ungodly. It is widely known in our tradition that we don’t leave anything to chance. We think that all things have a purposefulness, everything is hishgach pratit – Divinely ordered and by providence in our lives. Our sages tell us that our success is a matter of providence often times more than skill, this is well known; its more of a matter of birth than achievement (Talmud Bavli Sanheidrin 156a). But even if we insist that it is based on our own skill, the Torah itself here in our parsha tells us that we still can’t take credit for it; as if it was built merely of our own labor. The Torah tells us why we need to consider G-d who is the champion of the humble and lowly. The parsha continues:
“But you must remember Hashem your G-d
who gives you the strength
to make wealth
in order to establish His covenant
which He swore to your forefathers,
[for it to be] as it is today.”
| Vezacharta et-Hashem Eloheicha
| ki hu hanoten lecha koach
| la’asot chayil
| lema’an hakim et-berito
| asher-nishba la’avoteycha
| kayom hazeh.
The Torah calls us out. It says to even those of us who have suffered the biggest hardships, who came from nothing and have risen through the ranks to greatness, to those us that have built and acquired much, it says to us that we can’t really take credit for building that ourselves. Hashem gave us the strength to be able to accomplish that. Furthermore we are children of promise and privileged though this covenant of the Torah, its not all our building, we are benefactors of things that started long before we came into this world.
For this reason, this parsha stands out to me in this time of political and economic turmoil. Everywhere it seems the classes in society are fighting each other. The poor demanding a better shake, and the wealthy obstinately insisting that they deserve all their excess because its the produce of their own hand and might. This parsha doesn’t shame people for success, but it decries pride and aloofness. This parsha cries out against the attitude of tycoons who only concerning themselves with their own continued increase and who could care-less for the common man. We need to help others because we have been helped along the way. To not recognize this is haughtiness.
It also calls out the angry and crotchety conservatives in our midst that have and still benefit so much from the excess left over from the second part of the 20th century, and from the foundations of social justice and the social safety net, but aren’t concerned at all with what they leave behind to future generations. You know these people, you’ve heard them loud and clear, “I did it all myself. You young people think you deserve so much. I don’t care what happens if they do away with that, I’m gonna be dead anyway.” The Torah calls us out. It reminds us that we benefit today from a legacy of promise and blessing that has culminated in the success we have today, so it wasn’t all us; believing anything else is just arrogance. We need to be concerned with what we leave behind.
Once we understand that we can start to give serious consideration to the calls of tzedakah – of justice and righteousness, as defined by our moral responsibility to do justice and give charity. Only then are we truly remembering Hashem and His mitzvot.
- Parshat Va’etchanan (2012) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)
- Parshat Eikev (2011) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)
- Parshat Re’eh (2011) (hardcoremesorah.wordpress.com)