THE PARADOXICAL CHALLENGE OF RIGHTEOUSNESS
Throughout Moshe Rabbeinu’s final address to the Jewish People, there is a message that is significantly clear: follow the Torah and things will be good with you; turn away from the Torah path and the results will be negative.1 It is within these words that we even find the famous second chapter of the Shema Yisrael2 which encapsulates this message so succinctly. Success demands the external circumstances that enable success. No matter how hard a farmer may work, his/her efforts are still dependent upon the weather, an outside factor upon which he/she would seem to have no control. Yet, what these verses are informing us is that the farmer indeed still does have a measure of control over these external factors. In that God controls the weather, what will be is totally within His Will and, through these statements, God is informing us that He causes these external factors to respond to the Torah observance of the nation. Follow Torah and the weather will respond positively; turn away from the Torah and it will not. Success is not only dependent on the physical efforts of the farmer but also upon his/her Torah observance.3
The question now arises, though: how to deal with such success? The question actually applies in regard to any form of success for a possible result of achievement is, unfortunately, the development of haughtiness and/or inappropriate self-importance. There is no doubt that a person, in order to meet any challenge, must develop a certain level of personal confidence in his/her abilities and potential. Recognizing one’s successes properly can provide important feedback in this development.4 The difficulty is that it can also lead to a gross misperception in regard to self. It is interesting to notice how athletes will speak of all the hard work and dedication that was necessary for them to be victorious but, even almost in the same breadth, will also simultaneously speak of being lucky and in the right time and place in scoring, for example, the winning goal. Was it simply luck or was it the result of their effort and ability? We may not know what they truly believe but this reference to luck is generally looked upon positively as it would seem to reflect a degree of humility. We still do wish to hear of how an achievement was a reflection of hard work yielding results, as this gives us hope and spurs us on to meet our challenges. Nevertheless, we also do wish to hear this reference to luck for it provides the necessary counterbalance to a potential of an overextended ego. There is a similar dilemma in the realm of the spiritual and luck cannot provide the same counterbalance.5
Devarim 9:4-8 would seem to provide the
counterbalance necessary in the realm of the spiritual to ensure that one not
become haughty through self-righteousness. First, it may be that one’s success
is not the result of one’s positive attributes but, rather, as a necessary
consequence of another’s failure. It was not that the Jewish nation deserved
T.B. Yoma 22b would seem to present a similar theme in regard to leadership. The gemara advocates for the appointment of a leader that, in modern colloquial terms, has ‘skeletons in the closet’. Having a negative element in one’s past will act against a possible display of haughtiness.7 So it would seem that, on some level, we are to recognize success as a reflection of our positive actions but before we allow that thought to fan our egos we are to also acknowledge that we are still far from perfect. What is strange, though, is that the gemara refers to the failure of the monarchy of Shaul Hamelech as an example of the problem in appointing a leader who has no ‘skeletons’. It is clearly most difficult to thereby state that Shaul Hamelech suffered from haughtiness. More significantly, though, is that this very same gemara refers to a weakness in Shaul in that he was too humble, foregoing even the honour that was absolutely due a king. It cannot be that “skeletons in the closet’ will ensure that one will not be haughty, or that their absence will yield arrogance. One who has experienced the movement of life, however, does think differently. Acknowledging the co-existence of success and failure causes us to even look upon success differently – and it is that recognition which can ensure that our righteousness will not suffer from self-righteousness.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 Of course, within this statement lies the challenging fact that we often do not see this causal result. This, in turn, has led to what has been termed the most difficult of questions – why do we see negative consequences befall the righteous person and positive results happening to the evil doer? Even Moshe Rabbeinu was bothered by this question. See T.B. Berachot 7a. While a recognition of Olam Habah, the Future World, in this causal equation, is often presented as a factor in attempting to respond to this problem, this in turn also yields another problem, especially in regard to our verses, as these Divine-directed causal consequences linking ethics with success are also often presented as specifically to be occurring within this world. Albeit, though, that these are most important issues and, as such, should at least be acknowledged within any discussion of this nature, it should be noted that they will not be addressed within this Insight.
2 Devarim 11:13-21.
3 In this regard, one may also wish to consider the words of Devarim 8:3 that human beings do not live by bread alone. There is more to life than the direct cause-and-effect of physical reality. This recognition, however, also leads us into the further question of how we are to then balance this acknowledgement of the role of the Divine in reality with the normative understanding of physical reality – a substantial question within the entire realm of Jewish thought. This question specifically finds expression, in regard to this paragraph from the Shema, in the famous disagreement between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai about the nature of the success defined in these verses. See T.B. Berachot 35b.
4 In this regard, see, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik, Shechora Ani V’Na’aveh, Shiurei Harav. The Rav contends that we find declarations of accomplishment in the statement that accompanied the presentation of the first fruits, vidui bikkurim, for it is necessary for individuals to believe in themselves in order to fulfill the challenge of Torah. He specifically points out that this statement is referred to as vidui, a term that is usually used in the context of teshuva, repentance, for in order to repent one must believe in oneself and one’s ability to meet the challenge of improving oneself. Only one who can state that he/she is able to do things properly is able to also accept the challenge of teshuva,
5 While one could contend that recognition of God would provide a similar counterbalance, this is not necessarily the case. Luck implies that there is no reason for this person to have succeeded and, as such, inherently challenges any argument of the uniqueness of this person. While recognizing that it may only be the Will of God that enabled a person to accomplish what was done – even with an assertion that the person’s own abilities had nothing to do with what was accomplished – one could still feel a specialness in that he/she was chosen to be the instrument of the Divine activity. This, unlike luck, could still lead to haughtiness.
6 There are obvious difficulties with this statement being taken in a vacuum but the point is that this lesson is important within this context.
7 To fully understand the breadth of this idea, we should note that Rashi mentions, as an example, that Dovid Hamelech was descended from Ruth, a Moabite, and thus lacked perfect genealogical roots.
© Nishma 2012
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© 2010 NISHMA