HONEST ARROGANCE V. HYPOCRITICAL HUMILITY
Rabbi David Walk
My title up there is based on a quote from the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who preferred honest arrogance to hypocritical humility. Now arrogance is a very dangerous thing, but a small measure of it may be necessary for the arts or scholarship to flourish. It sometimes takes a little arrogance or chutzpah to present your talents to the world. I guess there may be a little arrogance on my part to write these articles. Who says that I have anything more significant to say that you, my dear reader? But the traditional position in Judaism is that arrogance is very bad, and although there are numerous rabbinic quotations affirming that premise, the basic source for this idea is found, believe it or not, in this week's Torah reading.
In our parsha we read the following: Beware that you do not forget the Lord, your God, by not keeping His commandments, His ordinances, and His statutes, which I command you this day, lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and you will say to yourself, "My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me (Deuteronomy 8:11-14 & 17)." These verses are the basis for a famous statement by Rashi that the test of wealth is harder to overcome than the challenge of poverty. Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) comments that the haughtiness one feels through economic success can feed the Yetzer Hara, negative inclination. In turn this can pull a person towards the conclusion that the essence of one's life is fulfilling one's own desires. Obeying God's dicta for such a person becomes secondary and tangential.
Now the central phrase describing the negative spirit is ram l'vavecha, which literally means your heart will be lifted, can be translated as your heart will become haughty (Art Scroll), your heart will become proud (New International), or your heart will become arrogant (God's Word Translation). This dangerous attitude is denigrated in the Talmud, where it says that the arrogant will be cut down like idolatrous trees, and that they have no future life, and this behavior is a form of idolatry (Sotah 5a). There is also a discussion over the language in our verse about guarding yourself from this attitude. One team believes that this is actually a Biblical prohibition, while others maintain that it is an ethical idea of positive advice.
There are two statements in that Gemara which I believe help us get an idea of the philosophic problems of being arrogant. The first one is that the haughty don't cause the earth to stir. This refers to the idea that someday the righteous will be resurrected from the grave, and they won't be allowed to open the grave above them. The Maharal M'Prague comments on that statement and says that all life generates from the earth and the haughty have no influence on the ground because they have claimed to be greater or better than the other products of the soil. So, the first characteristic of the haughty is that they think they're better than others.
The other statement is even stronger. The Divine Presence which often permeates our realm can't reside among the haughty. God is somehow driven out by the arrogance of these individuals. God only dwells within those who invite the Deity in. The arrogant believe that they control their own destiny and have no need for beckoning God. The second horror of this attitude is that they believe that the Image of God implanted within them makes them the equal of God. They're not just God's gift to mankind; they're God manifest among mankind.
In psychology the advanced form of haughtiness is pathological narcissism. There are many variations on this but it's commonly understood that there are seven manifestations of this phenomenon: shamelessness, distortion of reality, arrogance (lack of empathy), envy, entitlement, exploitation, and lack of boundaries. In this approach we're not discussing a sin. We're discussing a psychological condition. My guru on things psychological is
But is it always terrible to have a certain amount of haughtiness? Like all character traits, there is a need for the tendency, when under control. That same page of the Talmud we discussed before has the most amazing statement. Raba said: A disciple of the Sages who possesses haughtiness of spirit deserves excommunication, and if he does not possess it he deserves excommunication. The successful student requires a bit of chutzpa to offer his opinion in the presence of his mentors, but this trait is necessary for him to eventually claim his place amongst them.
We see that a certain amount of chutzpa which allows us to assert ourselves is necessary for success in life. However, this attitude must be constantly monitored, because unchecked it can lead to the most destructive of personality defects. What are the metrics to determine if I've crossed this line? I believe that there are two such measures. One is do I feel superior to others because of my idea or accomplishment? The other is, am I still grateful to God (or any higher source) for my talents and gifts? I believe that these two checks can be derived from the verse 'my strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me,' My strength refers to my thinking I'm better than the rest, and the might of my right hand means that I don't need God or anyone else.
We must go through life with confidence, but continually check that we don't become arrogant.
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