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      Rabbi Yisroel Chait, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Bnei Torah, poses a most fascinating yet bewildering question1 that I continue to find difficult to answer: how does one truly get through to a ba’al gaiva, an inherently haughty person, that he/she should not be a ba’al gaiva? Of course, it is possible to teach and, perhaps more importantly, to motivate such a person to act humbly but that is precisely the Rosh Yeshiva’s point. If one looks at many of the sources within the Torah literature in this regard, such as, for example, Avot 1:13,2 one finds arguments that contend that the method by which one receives honour is by not seeking honour -- but is the ultimate aim still not honour? Honour would still seem to be the objective; the instruction is that the way to achieve this objective is through a method that seems to convey the opposite – but is this the true lesson of such statements? Is the goal solely to affect action or is the goal to affect the person, to cause the person to not desire honour? It would seem that when we discuss humility, the objective of such teachings is more than causing a change in behaviour but rather to cause a change in personality: don’t desire honour! Yet the very teachings that try to affect this change actually seem to reinforce this desire by using this desire itself to motivate the person. You want honour so don’t act haughty and thereby you will get honour – but the goal is still honour. How do you get across to someone that he/she should not even have this drive for honour?3 This is the Rosh Yeshiva’s question. If a person’s yardstick in determining behaviour is a drive for honour, you can cause them to change behaviour by using this yardstick but is the goal not solely to change behaviour but to change the yardstick? How then do you change the yardstick?

            The answer may be that the goal is simply to change behaviour, that it is not truly possible to change the yardstick. Alternatively, it may be argued that the only way to change a yardstick is to find another yardstick within the person that is more important to him/her and use that yardstick to affect change in the yardstick of desiring honour. An argument that haughtiness may hinder one’s career would be such an example, assuming that the desire for success in one’s career is more important to the person than honour. The person will thereby not try to just change behaviour but also personality in attempting to satisfy a greater drive within himself/herself. The problem is that this is not what these teachings such as the one presented in Avot 1:13, seem to be presenting. They are using the very drive to change the very drive, or, perhaps, it is just the behaviour that is the focus of these statements. What is perhaps most significant from all this, though, is the recognition that you can only teach someone based upon what motivates them.

            The words of Mishlei 22:6 to teach a child according to his/her ways would seem immediately to come to mind. It is not enough to present someone with information expecting that person to affect change in himself/herself by just encountering this information. One must cause this information to touch the person; the nature and personality of the person is thus most significant. What is being taught, thus, must be molded in consideration of the person one is wishing to instruct. This, though, places a parameter on the information that one wishes to impart, even if this is Torah information. It would seem not to be enough to tell someone what the Torah says; one must also determine why someone would be interested in this information and then, most importantly, consider this knowledge in conveying the Torah idea to this person. But does this not mean that we are demanded to mold the Torah information in consideration of the person? Does this not seem to imply that even Torah is defined, to some extent, by the individual it is trying to reach and instruct?

            The famous statement of T.B. Makkot 10b that states that in the way someone wishes to go, the Torah will lead them, seems to be powerfully on point. Included in the gemara’s discussion is the case of Bilaam who finally was allowed by God to go to with these emissaries of Balak even though at first God said not to go with them. Is this stating that God will give in to the desires of individuals? How could Bilaam, a person who encountered God on the highest level possible for a human being to perceive the Divine, consider an act that is even slightly removed from the Will of God? The case of Bilaam seems to show that just the knowledge of God, even at the highest level, cannot affect a person unless that knowledge touches something within the personality of the person thereby igniting a drive to follow that instruction. Yet Bilaam was still punished for his misbehaviour and the words of Makkot still do not justify the sins that one may commit. Indeed the Torah itself will lead you upon the path you wish to go, indeed you will use the very words of Torah to justify that which you wish to do, but nonetheless you are still responsible for your misdeeds. It has always bothered me. I turn to Torah for instruction yet I am told that the Torah itself can mislead me and seem to instruct me in a way that I should not go because that is the way I want to go. The Torah would seem to be intentionally open to being misleading. It seems to be that it must be – for the only way it can truly speak to me is through knowledge of who I am and touching that which interests me.

            To speak to me, the Torah must present itself in the context of my being. My being thereby becomes a parameter in my understanding of Torah. This very parameter, though, may also cause my understanding of Torah to veer and affect the message in an inappropriate manner. How do I know, though, when I am following the words of Mishlei and teaching Torah in an appropriate manner that considers the person’s being or when I am following the model of Bilaam and applying a person’s being to distort the Torah message? How do I use a person’s desire for honour to teach that person not to be interested in honour?

            Of course, in the case of Bilaam, he was first told not to go with the men, so he should have already known better. What can we do, though, when we can already distort the first message? As I said, I am still troubled by this question. My only conclusion so far is that it is important for us to understand and consider this dilemma as we contemplate the Torah word. We must be also very careful to recognize what we truly want.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht



1 Heard orally.

2 This states that one who seeks a name, loses his/her name – that the one who seeks honour will ultimately not gain honour. This would seem to be a tautology. If we argue that one should not seek honour because seeking honour one will actually result in not gaining it, does the not-seeking of honour, thereby, become a way of seeking honour?

3 Of course, some level of concern for one’s honour may still be appropriate and this question should be understood within this context. On the difficult question of determining the proper level of this concern, see, further, Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, c. 1,2.

(c) Nishma, 2008


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