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Talk About a Swelled Head

Did you ever meet someone with a “fat” head? Not the kind of swollenness that comes from a sports injury or the “big head” depicted in an episode of Seinfeld. Nor is this condition brought about by “beating your head against the wall” in pursuit of some elusive way to get a stubborn opponent to see your point of view. The swollen head I am referring to is the result of a false mindset. It results from a misguided assessment of our successes. This phenomenon can be an individual affliction or occur even to an entire nation. This week’s Torah reading, פרשת עקב, “Parshat Eikev,” provides insight into the antidote for the “swelled head” syndrome.
Moshe’s lesson begins harmlessly enough. In the beginning of the parsha, Moshe encourages the people by telling them that their natural fear in going to war should not dissuade them from dispossessing the seven Canaanite nations currently living in the land. He exhorts the nation to remember what God did to liberate them from the mighty Egyptians. He goes on to describe the life they had in the desert these past 40 years, recounting all the miraculous events they witnessed first-hand. Finally, Moshe describes to the people the bounty of the land they are about to conquer.
Then Moshe’s tone takes a turn. He warns the nation about being impressed with themselves for their future material success. He puts them on guard about a boastful attitude for national accomplishments. What produces these inflated self-images? What goes on internally that fools people into making serious misjudgments like these about themselves?
In two separate verses, Moshe points out the underlying thought processes leading people to make such false assessments. First, we read in chapter 8:17, “You may say in your heart, ‘My strength and the might of my hand made me all this wealth.’ Then shortly thereafter we read chapter 9:4, “Don’t say in your heart…because of my righteousness did Hashem bring me to possess this land and because of the wickedness of these nations did Hashem drive them away from before you.” What potential flaws is Moshe admonishing and forewarning the people about? Furthermore and as important, are we subject to the same defects today?
When a person works very hard and becomes successful, the opportunity arises for the person’s ego to attribute his good fortune to his brain power, or his social skills, or his business acumen. We have all heard of the expression, “a self-made man.” Operating under this illusion, it doesn’t take long before another emotion, in support of the first, kicks in as well. This feeling is the primitive notion that I am inherently good and righteous. I am a virtuous person, why else was I so successful? The rationalization continues; God certainly would not have let me achieve such greatness if, in His eyes, I didn’t deserve it! Moshe is “all over” the people for this false sense of self-righteousness. Bluntly and in no uncertain terms Moshe tells the nation (9:5) that, “Not because of your righteousness and the uprightness of your heart are you coming to possess their land…”
These two very powerful emotions can cause us individually, and collectively as one nation, to completely distort the reality. Particularly in today’s civilization where we are bombarded on a daily basis with messages and images, we are vulnerable to both the conscious and subliminal shaping of attitudes. The impact of this constant messaging affects us on both an individual and national scale. Many of our personal desires and aspirations, much of our individual consumption habits are shaped by the constancy of advertisement. Nationally, slogans such as “This is the greatest country on earth” or “We are founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic,” are just two of the familiar platitudes we have grown up with living in America. But are they true and how do they make us feel and act?
In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe points out the psychological causes for making serious misjudgments. Moreover, he shows us how one false assessment progresses to the other. Not only was the generation of Israelites, soon to enter Canaan and become the Nation of Israel, subject to these flaws. We too are subject to them. They are part of our human nature. The Torah records Moshe’s words so we too can study them and apply these insights to our own lives. Honest reflection will help us avoid the pitfalls and dangers of living a life guided by false values.
How should we view ourselves and our success? First, we must reflect on our accomplishments recognizing and expressing our gratitude, הכרת הטוב, to those that have helped us along the way to get where we are. Albert Einstein often remarked that his view of physics was only possible because he was “standing on the shoulders of previous great thinkers.” Similarly, we must be ever mindful that it is God who creates the situations and opportunities that allow us to grow and achieve success. Some people take advantage of them while others let them pass by.
Along with this realization is the philosophic perfection that then opens up to the individual. The measure of this perfection is displayed by our actions. Such an individual lives a life that reflects the understanding that success is not an end in itself. Rather, our success is to enable the doing of more Torah and mitzvot for ourselves and others.
Second is the proper attitude we must have toward our own sense of worth and righteousness. As Moshe points out to the generation with him, don’t think you are so righteous or that the other nations are so wicked. Such an assessment is purely subjective and relative. Only Hashem knows objectively and absolutely the righteousness or wickedness of individuals and nations. Rather, we should view ourselves, as the Rambam mentions in the third chapter of the Laws of Repentance, not as righteous nor as wicked but right on the line, a בינוני. Doing one more mitzvah will put us on the righteous side of the line while one more violation will put us on the wicked side.
This is the second of the seven Shabbatot of Comfort leading up to our High Holidays. Let us take comfort knowing that God renews opportunities for us each day to look honestly at ourselves and our people. Only through an honest assessment can an individual or nation come close to God. We make this affirmation three times daily in our prayers, “Hashem is close to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth.”
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan
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