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Humility vs. Humiliation

This week's Torah portion, Bo, includes the final three plagues brought against Pharaoh and Egypt as well as the first Passover seder meal (observed by the Israelites as the horror of the tenth plague coursed through Egypt). The parashah ends with the Israelites starting their journey out of Egypt after having lived there for 430 years.

The story is familiar. And yet, as with all narratives of the Torah, if one pays attention to the text with one's heart and soul one can find a myriad of truths within it. Just as no two people are exactly alike, neither are two truths.

The truth that I became mindful of while reading the parashah was sparked by Exodus 12:31-32. After the horror of the tenth plague has been visited upon Egypt Moses and Aaron are summoned to Pharaoh's house where Pharaoh says to them, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!"

In the JPS Torah commentary Nahum Sarna comments that "for [Pharaoh] to seek their blessing is thus the ultimate humbling of the despot." In this context I at first read the word "humbling" as "humiliation." For Pharaoh to ask Moses and Aaron for a blessing is the quintessential humiliation of the tyrant who realizes that he has no true power. And yet there is another way to read this verse that does not equate humility with humiliation.

Living, as we do, in a world where people tout and flaunt their accomplishments in order to show the brilliance of human beings, humility is not evidenced (or appreciated) as much as it should be. It is true that we can be brilliant. According to the Torah we are the only beings created in the image of God. We are the only ones into whom God breathed the breath of life. In kabbalistic (mystical) terms we each carry within us a spark of the Divine light - our soul. We are indeed brilliant. So why be humble? Why not simply admit to our brilliance and revel in our mastery of the universe?

I would imagine that many of you could find numerous answers to these questions. All we need to do is look at our history of destruction, pollution, violence and greed to find reasons not to be so proud. Some of us do this, but others would rather close their eyes than admit to that reality.

Those who close their eyes to the shortfalls of humanity, which I believe is what make us truly human, get caught in the snare of excessive pride. Yet those who focus only on the shortfalls and deny the beauty of humanity are caught in the trap of humiliation and shame. "How can we bring such destruction into the world if we are really created in the image of God?", they ask. But adhering to either extreme belief we simply end up stuck wherever we are. We are unable to move. Unable to work to improve our world. And that is not what human beings are meant to do.

In the narrative that we read this week, and that which precedes it, Moses and Aaron are constantly commanded to seek freedom for the people to go into the desert in order to worship God. Pharaoh's advisors urge him to give permission to the Israelites, for they realize that "Egypt is lost." But Pharaoh is unable to see this. Even once he seems to be convinced by yet another plague in this week's parashah he still places conditions upon the Israelites. Moses and Aaron wish to leave with all the adults, children and their herds to worship God in the desert. Pharaoh first tells them that only the men may go for he fears that they are not planning to return (so he is not as simple minded as he might seem!) Then he acquiesces slightly so that he agrees to allow the women and children to go, but the herds must stay behind. Moses refuses this offer for he knows that they must have the flocks with them in order to choose the proper animals for sacrifice to God.

Of course, Pharaoh refuses and the rest is history - and tragedy. In this narrative Pharaoh is the epitome of pride in extremis. He is unable to believe that there is anything or anyone greater than he. He deliberately ignores the advice of his advisors because he does not believe that Egypt could be lost, for that would mean that Pharaoh himself was lost, for Pharaoh was Egypt.

Yet it could be said that he is trying to temper his hubris and strictness with a little compassion by allowing some of the Israelites to leave, or even all of the them (just not their herds). But what he does not realize is that it is an all or nothing proposition. The Israelites are a single unit and this unit includes everyone one and everything. Even the smallest animal is part of the whole. This is perhaps the essence of humility, as opposed to humiliation. To realize that we are connected to everything in the universe, including the animals and plants, is to acknowledge that being created in God's image truly means that we must feel connected to and responsible for all of God's creation - not that we are in control of them. Moses and Aaron knew that in order to worship God they needed to go together as a single unit. No one or no thing could be left behind. Complete unity was required. Pharaoh believed that all of creation was
subservient to him. Moses and Aaron understood that all of creation is united as one and subject only to the One that is the essence of all. We are all connected to and humbled before God - however one chooses to define God.

Pharaoh's inability to see divinity in others and the world around him caused him to learn the powerful and painful lesson that his divinity was nothing but a ruse. He was no more - or no less - divine than any other human being. But this was not something that a Pharaoh could accept. For Pharaoh this was also an all or nothing proposition. Once it became clear to him that he was not a god he was forced to reject the essence of his entire existence. He could not allow himself to see that God was within him as well as within the Israelites, as well as the Egyptians. All he could see was that the Israelite God was more powerful than the Egyptian gods - including himself. Because of this distorted perception of reality he could only feel humiliation. From that place of humiliation he asked Moses to bring a blessing upon him just as he (Moses) had brought a blessing upon the Hebrews by bringing them their freedom.

Even here Pharaoh missed the point yet again. He was unable to see that Moses did not bring the blessing upon the people, nor could he bring it upon Pharaoh. God freely gave the blessing, and not because of anything the people did (after all, they didn't do much at this point in time). The blessing was given because the people were God's people, just as we all are. The blessing was actually within us all and was - and is - part of what it means to be human. Pharaoh only needed to understand and accept this in order to receive (or should I say recognize) the blessing. He did not need to ask Moses or anyone else.

Unfortunately he was incapable of this kind of humility. For Pharaoh the 'all' was the pride and hubris that comes with the fantasy of absolute power. The 'nothing' was the utter humiliation that comes with the realization that his power was an illusion coupled with the belief that without that power he is nothing.

The middle path, which is what Pharaoh and all human beings must strive for, is to acknowledge that our sense of power over the universe, or even ourselves, is ultimately an illusion. At the same time we also need to acknowledge that we are all part of the One that is God. We all have the potential to connect to the source of power that is at the root of all creation, human and non-human.

All humanity - indeed all of creation - has the potential to be blessed if we only acknowledge that connection and act from a place of knowledge and understanding. In doing so we receive not only blessing but also a heart of wisdom and compassion that leads us to care for and love others and our world, and not just ourselves. This ultimately begins in a place of humility without humiliation, a place of pride without the illusion of power or control.

The parashah ends with the commandment that every first born of the Israelites and every first born of their flocks shall be dedicated to God as a reminder of the death of the first born of Egypt that helped to bring about their freedom. I also view this commandment as a reminder of the importance of remembering that we are all connected. We are all in this together. All creatures belong to God and all creatures much be cherished and protected. Yes, we are free. But we can only appreciate and embody true freedom if we recognize that we are still responsible and connected to something greater than ourselves. We can only appreciate our freedom when we sense this connection and also realize all that has been sacrificed by other individuals for the sake of the One (whether you view that as God, humanity or both).

Therefore, all creatures are commanded to sacrifice something for God. The dedication of the firstborn then symbolizes the need for all of us to become dedicated to the pursuit of the oneness of the universe. We must strive to be one with all of creation. With the divine. This is the essence of humility without humiliation. This is the essence of what it means to be a blessing to us and to all of creation. This is the essence of pride without power. This is the essence of what it means to be created in the image of the Divine. This is the essence of what it means to be a free human being.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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