Last week we discussed the trait of ga’avah (haughtiness) as being a potential impediment to having achdut. The desire and feeling of being greater than another Jew can easily cause more than just a distance, and even possible discord. It can be difficult for someone with ga’avah to unify with other Jews since he is “above them.” Ga’avah is so repulsive that God Himself deems it as an “abomination” (Mishlei 16:5), and additionally God makes a declaration, saying, “I and he [a haughty person] cannot dwell together” (Tehillim 101:5). However, the bottom line is that when it comes to middot, the objective of refining our middot means to not completely eradicate the middah, but rather to control it in an improper scenario and instead utilize it an appropriate one. Even a middah such as gaavah has its time and place. So, where can we activate this good ga’avah?
This week’s parsha begins the downward spiral leading to the enslavement of the Jewish people. How did the eventual enslavement happen? The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh explains that although the Jews were once a respected nation, once that respect fell away, the enslavement began.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz says we learn from the Ohr Hachaim that as evil as the Egyptians were, they were nevertheless unable to subjugate the Jews as long as they considered the Jews as important and people of high esteem. Only once the Jews fell from their level to the point where they were considered low and degrading in their eyes, did the Egyptians begin to subjugate them. Rav Chaim explains that there are two reasons why this is so, which really go hand in hand: 1) Because the Egyptians held them in importance, and once their respect left, they began to enslave them. 2) As long as the Jews had self-respect, the Egyptians were unable to subjugate them; only once they no longer considered themselves with the proper amount of dignity and importance were the Egyptians able to begin subjugating them. Rav Chaim says that these are two sides of the same coin. Meaning, the Egyptians held the Jews in importance as long as the Jews considered themselves to be important and distinguished, but once the Jews fell from that state, now the Egyptians also fell from deeming the Jews as honorable, and thus they began enslaving them.
Says Rav Chaim, this middah of “self-respect” is our tactic to fight the yetzer hara. The same way the Jews could have remained independent from the Egyptians and free from their grasp had they continued to hold themselves with importance, so too the way to free ourselves from the pull of the yetzer hara is to hold ourselves in a high esteem and with importance. For once a person realizes that he is a great and distinguished person, he won’t come to sin, since sinning is beneath a person of his caliber.
I thought perhaps we can learn from Rav Chaim the arena in which we can utilize good ga’avah, and that is when it comes to going in Hashem’s ways and overcoming nisyonot. One of the ways the yetzer hara convinces us to sin and steer away from God is by jabbing at our esteem. Especially post facto sin, the yetzer hara can attempt to tell a person that he or she is no good anyways, so he or she might as well just sin more. Rav Chaim says an eye-opening idea, that as vital as it is to study mussar, that even that may not help in overcoming nisoyot as much as having the middah of self-respect will, since the whole purpose of mussar is to bring the middah of having pride in going in the ways of Hashem.
I believe we learn from Rav Chaim how crucial it is to utilize the middah of ga’avah in order to feel like we are too important to divert from the ways of Hashem. Indeed, the pasuk praises the virtue of “his heart was proud in the ways of Hashem” (Divrei Hayamim II, 17:6). As a nation as well, we need to reflect on our importance as a nation that is “a light unto the other nations,” meaning, a nation that models going in the ways of Hashem. This reflection becomes an even greater necessity in light of recent events, in which we perhaps need to carry a dual attitude when it comes to ga’avah: On one hand, we need to to diminish ga’avah in order to strengthen our achdut, while at the same time feel gaavah in order to retain our pride as Jews, as people who proudly carry the flag of God and represent righteousness and morality.
Binyamin Benji is a graduate of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan, and Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He currently learns in Eretz Yisrael, and is the author of the Sephardic Congregation of Paramus’ weekly Torah Talk. He can be reached at [email protected]