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“Humility As an Antidote for Hubris,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

January 20, 2023 | 27 Tevet 5783

Welcome again to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

I am the Eternal. Ani Adonai. (Exodus 6:2)

Clear and to the point. Unequivocal.  This declaration, which begins this week’s Torah portion, was meant to help Moses adjust to his mission to redeem the Jewish people from the most narrow place.

Its emphatic nature is meant for Pharaoh, too. At the end of the last week’s portion, Pharaoh delivered an edict to make life even more difficult for the Israelite slaves, as if bondage isn’t bad enough. He stopped providing the straw for the bricks they would need and accused them of being “shirkers” but insisted they must still fulfill their quota. Life was about to get much more difficult. Pharaoh sought to solve a problem by making it much worse for everyone involved.

Pharaoh is narrow-minded but full of himself. His hubris will fill the land of Egypt with blood, with frogs and with lice, just to name a few. He could use some humility, which is what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Britain, taught as the antidote to hubris.

Mussar, traditional Jewish teachings on ethical and moral character development, provides a definition of humility:

No more than my space no less than my place. [1]

In the Mussar literature, such is the succinct summary of the idea of humility.

Both Pharaoh and Moses struggled with it but from different perspectives.

Moses tried to figure out his place guiding the Israelite slaves out of bondage as the representative of God but acknowledged that the people were not listening or believing him.  Even more, he had declined the offer to redeem the people from the start. According to Jewish tradition, his behavior defined humility.

On the other hand, Pharaoh wanted to take up every bit of space. He perceived a power he actually did not possess. His actions were the epitome of hubris. In the first five plagues of the ten, Pharaoh actually hardened his own heart. His obstinacy reduced his ability to see beyond himself. He thought he was in control. He was not.

Remember the first words of the portion: I am Adonai. Ani Adonai.

Those who think like Pharaoh may assume they hold power, but it does not belong to them.

Perhaps the words of the Haftarah from this week, from the book of Ezekiel, as he lambasted Egypt, declaring its demise, might provide some sustenance to endure:

On that day I will endow the House of Israel with strength, and you shall be vindicated among them. And they shall know that I am the Eternal. Ani Adonai. (29:21)

Only God takes up the whole world. The rest of us have to figure it out. With Shabbat, we can reflect on how much space we take up and whether it is enough or too much. And even so, let this time also allow us to consider how much the world summons us to step into a place to repair that which is fractured by hubris.

Shabbat Shalom!

[1] Every Day Holy Day by Alan Morinis, also see Everyday Holiness

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher