By: Rabbi Eli J. Mansour
Judaism demands humility, but a little bit of “holy arrogance” is not such a bad thing. In fact, it may be impossible to live as an observant Jew without it.
It’s not often that you hear a rabbi tell you to be arrogant.
But the rabbi’s job is to convey the Torah’s message, and just beneath the surface of the Torah’s discussion of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) lies this very message – the value of arrogance!
Let us first take a step back and review what should be obvious – the critical importance of humility in religious life. From the Torah’s standpoint, humility is to spiritual greatness what yeast is to bread. It is a basic, indispensable ingredient. There is no such thing as an arrogant spiritual giant; the very term is oxymoronic. A story is told of a rabbi who visited a certain town and was offered two lodging options. The community leaders described the first host as a strictly observant Jew, in whose home the rabbi could eat without any hesitation, and with whom he could converse about Torah matters on a scholarly level. But, the rabbi was warned, this host was known for thinking a bit too highly about himself. The alternative was the home of a simple, humble Jew who was not knowledgeable in Torah or seriously committed to halachic observance.
Without a moment’s hesitation, and to the astonishment of the community representatives, the rabbi asked to be brought to the second man’s house.
“The sages teach that Gd cannot live in a place of arrogance,” the rabbi explained. “If Gd cannot tolerate arrogance, then how could I?” He therefore preferred staying with a less observant family than with a strictly observant man plagued by hubris. In fact, it wasn’t even a question.
For good reason, Moshe Rabbenu, whom the Torah calls the greatest prophet the Jewish people ever produced, is also described as “exceedingly humble, more so than all men on the face of the earth.” Spiritual greatness depends, to a large extent, on humility, the recognition that one has still much to accomplish. It is only natural that the most humble man in our history was also the closest to Gd.
Already as small children we were taught that Gd specifically chose Mount Sinai as the site for giving the Torah because of its unimpressive stature. Gd selected little Sinai over the grand, majestic mountains of Israel such as Tabor and Hermon, to teach us that accepting and living by the Torah demands humility and meekness.
In the Book of Vayikra, the Torah discusses the laws relevant to a messora, a person stricken by the sara’at skin disorder as a result of his speaking lashon hara, negative speech about other people. Once the skin is healed, the messora must undergo a purification process which entails, among other things, his bringing a piece of cedar wood (“ess erez”)and a hyssop branch (“ezov”). The sages explained that cedar and hyssop symbolize, respectively, arrogance and humility. The cedar is among the largest and most majestic trees, and its wood is sturdy and enduring. It is thus often viewed as a symbol of power, dominion, and pride. The lowly hyssop, by contrast, represents the humility and sense of submission demanded of a Torah Jew. The messora is commanded to turn himself from a cedar into a hyssop, to eliminate the pride and conceit that led him to speak condescendingly about other people. In his “cedar-like” arrogance, the messora assumed the right to cast judgment on his fellow and besmirch his reputation. He must now lower himself to the stature of the hyssop, and start treating his peers humbly and unpretentiously.
Humility and Arrogance in the Mishkan
In the Mishkan, too, we find an allusion to this most elementary principle of Jewish living. The ark, which contained the stone tablets bearing Gd’s commandments, as well as the first Torah scroll, was a wooden box measuring 2.5×1.5×1.5 cubits. Unlike the measurements of the furniture in our home, to which we can hardly ascribe any level of profound significance, the dimensions of every feature of the Mishkan are laden with symbolic meaning. The Ba’al Haturim (Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher, 1270-1340) noted that all of the ark’s three dimensions – width, length and height – are fractions (2.5, 1.5 and 1.5), and not whole numbers (such as 2 or 1). The reason, he explained, is that a student of Torah must always see himself as only a “half,” just a part of what he could still become. The importance of humility is thus a “built-in” feature of the ark, the most sacred article in the Mishkan. The holiest place on earth bears the message of “half,” that we must never see ourselves as perfect and complete, but rather as imperfect people who must continue working to grow and improve.
Astonishingly, however, even though humility constitutes a vital component of the ideal of holiness represented by the Mishkan, the Torah requires building this structure from cedar wood, the symbol of pride and self-importance. The Torah in Parashat Teruma commands erecting 20 planks of cedar on the northern and southern sides of the Mishkan, and eight on the western side. These planks formed the basic structure of the Mishkan, and they were then covered by decorative cloths.
What message does the Torah seek to convey by assigning such a prominent role to cedar wood in the construction of the Mishkan? Cedar is the last material we would expect to find in the Mishkan – let alone as forming the very foundation of the building!
Moreover, the planks stood exactly 10 cubits high – not 10.5. When it comes to the wooden planks, the dimensions are whole, not fractions. Once again, the message of humility seems to have been replaced by a message of complacency and pride!
The answer is as simple as it is compelling. The Ba’al Shem Tov (Rabbi Israel Ben Eliezer, 1700-1760, founder of Hasidism) spoke of a concept called “ga’ava dikdusha,” or “holy arrogance.” As much as Judaism emphasizes humility, it also demands a certain degree of arrogance, without which Torah observance would not be possible.
A person begins attending Torah classes, and becomes inspired to increase his level of observance. With time, he becomes more discerning in choosing restaurants for lunch break, and he discontinues certain social activities in which he had participated on Friday nights. His synagogue attendance becomes more frequent, he starts arriving on time, and he prays earnestly.
None of these changes go unnoticed by his peers, some of who do not look too kindly upon their friend’s new lifestyle. The man starts hearing comments like, “So who brainwashed you?” “Oh, so you’re becoming a ‘black hat’?” “You actually listen to the rabbi’s drivel?” “What, we’re not religious enough for you, so you can’t join us on Friday night anymore?”
A woman begins to realize the importance of modest attire. The lectures she’s attended about the sense of dignity and self-worth engendered by modesty got her thinking about herself, her marriage and her priorities, and she gradually changes the way she dresses. But then she walks into a banquet hall, and her friends look at her with their mouths gaping. “What in the world are you wearing?” “What on earth happened to you?” “You look terrible!”
These are situations that require “ga’ava dikdusha,” arrogance. These are not the times to think, “Well, maybe they’re right. After all, what do I know? Why should I think I am better than them?” These situations call for stubborn, firm and resolute conviction and determination. Of course, one must speak courteously and respectfully, even to his detractors. But he must also speak unequivocally. It takes a good deal of courage to stick by one’s decisions in the face of criticism and ridicule. And this kind of courage requires arrogance – “holy arrogance.” One must feel too proud and secure to yield to social pressure, too confident to abandon his chosen lifestyle for the sake of earning the acceptance of his cynical peers.
The Yesser Hara’s Secret Weapon
But it’s not only our friends and acquaintances whom we must resist during the process of religious growth. We must also struggle against ourselves, and confidently refute our own skepticism.
The yesser hara (evil inclination) is very clever. When we decide to take another step in the right direction, the yesser hara immediately dons the cloak of piety and seeks to dissuade us in the name of humility. “Who on earth do you think you are?” he’ll tell us. “You’re not religious. Think of all the awful things you’ve done in your life. You’re not the kind of person who studies Torah, who prays seriously. You’re just a phony, trying to look religious to save face, trying to look like someone else because you’re too embarrassed by who you really are!”
We’ve all had thoughts like these cross our minds. And here is where arrogance plays such a critical role in the life of a Torah Jew. We must remind ourselves that to the contrary, we are all special and dear to Gd, and He loves us and wants our missvot regardless of our past. He has not rejected or given up on any of us. He wants us to take bold steps in our religious observance, to become more than we already are. Arrogance is thus indispensable to Torah growth, which demands confidence and a resolute conviction that we can and should move forward, that we are important enough in Gd’s eyes to become His loyal servants.
This is why the Mishkan was made from cedar wood, the symbol of arrogance, and why the measurements are in whole numbers. Sanctity, embodied by the Mishkan, requires “ga’ava dikdusha,” a healthy dose of stubbornness and pride. If we want to build our own “Mishkan,” a life of holiness, of religious devotion, in which the Almighty’s presence resides, then we must firmly believe that we are deserving and capable of it. And we must not let anyone – including ourselves – convince us otherwise.
The First Halacha in the Shulhan Aruch
The Shulhan Aruch is the basic code of halachic living, the guidebook that tells us what we must, may, and may not do in any situation. It was composed by Maran, Rav Yosef Karo (Spain-Israel, 1488-1575), and Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Poland, 1525-1572) later added glosses to produce the final text we have today. In the very first passage of this monumental work, Rabbi Isserles writes, “One should not be ashamed in the presence of those people who ridicule him for his service of the Almighty.”
Right when we open the book, the author gives us a clear warning: following the rules written in this work will invite the scorn and ridicule of those around you. Don’t be surprised if your observance of halacha makes you unpopular in some circles. But never back down. Always stick to your guns. Because the purpose of life is not to be popular, but to fulfill Gd’s will. The name of the game isn’t to be liked by people, but to be liked by Gd.
Of course, we must try to avoid confrontation. We certainly don’t want our loyalty to Torah to cause tension and discord. But when we are confronted, we must obey the sages’ admonition to be “brazen like a leopard” in fulfilling Gd’s will. We don’t back down, even in the face of hostility.
Imagine the person who just found out that he’s won ten million dollars. Unable to contain his overwhelming elation, he runs out into the street singing and dancing wildly. How worried would such a person be about the laughs and jeers of other pedestrians? Would he care that onlookers think he is crazy? Of course not; he just became a millionaire – what difference does it make what the people around him think? And though the onlookers may scorn his behavior without understanding its cause, surely if they had a clue as to the reason for his jubilant demonstration, none would find his reaction the least bit unwarranted.
This should be our attitude when people poke fun at us for observing the Torah. The value of each missva we perform far exceeds any amount of money. Why should it matter if people who don’t understand its value ridicule us? We are performing Gd’s will, earning eternal life in the next world. Why should we let an inane wisecrack bother us?
Consider the analogy of a small child approaching a head of state and calling him a silly name. How much attention would the world leader dedicate to such an incident? It would be hard to imagine any political dignitary ascribing any importance to such juvenile comments. And this is precisely the way we should react when we hear insults from an am ha’aress (unsophisticated person) who ignorantly scorns our Torah commitment. If we are doing the right thing, living the lives that Gd wants us to live, then does it matter what others think? If they make the terrible mistake of foolishly looking on Torah and missvot disdainfully, why should their insults disturb our resolve?
If this sounds like arrogance, that’s because it is. But this is the kind of arrogance that the Ba’al Shem Tov taught us to embrace, the kind of arrogance upon which the Mishkan is built. We need to feel confident in our Torah observance, rather than relenting in the face of social pressure.
The Ancient Cedars
Where did Bene Yisrael find cedar trees in the desert? Cedars do not grow in the Sinai desert, where the Mishkan was constructed. From where, then, did our ancestors find wood to build the Mishkan?
The Midrash explains that the cedars used in the wilderness were planted centuries earlier, by Avraham Avinu, in Be’er Sheva. When Avraham’s grandson, Yaakov, left Eress Yisrael to join his son, Yosef, in Egypt, he decided to stop off in the city of Be’er Sheva (Beresheet 46:1). The sages explain that he went to bring the cedars planted by his grandfather. Yaakov saw with prophetic foresight that Gd would command his descendants after the Exodus to construct a Mishkan from cedar wood, and therefore stopped in Be’er Sheva so he could take the wood with him to Egypt.
Avraham was known as “Avraham Ha’ivri,” which means that he stood alone on one side, while the rest of the world stood on the other. He heroically and single-handedly opposed the unanimously accepted belief in paganism and idolatry, and championed the notion of a single Creator who was all around us but could not be seen. Avraham’s “cedars” were not simply trees. They represented the boldness and courage that Avraham possessed and which enabled him to launch his theological revolution that changed the world. As Yaakov made his way to Egypt, realizing that a 210-year exile was unfolding, he took these cedars of Abraham. He brought to Egypt his grandfather’s “holy arrogance” which Bene Yisrael would need to resist the corrupt influences of ancient Egypt. Living in a decrepit, pagan society, Yaakov’s descendants survived on the merit of the ancient cedars of the patriarchs, the self-confidence with which they defied and opposed the majority. Indeed, during their stay in Egypt, Bene Yisrael managed to retain their identity and remain a separate group, proudly and defiantly resisting the constant social pressure exerted on them to assimilate and adopt the culture and mores of Egypt.
This message of “holy arrogance” is a critical one for our times, when we live in a society whose values, in so many ways, run in direct opposition to the most fundamental precepts of Torah life. The Jewish ideal of humility does not apply to our confrontation with a foreign culture. In this instance, we must be unrelenting and bold in our resistance to threatening spiritual influences. We cannot bow to pressure. In this “wilderness” of American society, we must use the “cedars” of Avraham, our pride and confidence in our beliefs and customs, to construct the “Mishkan,” to build homes and communities that are worthy of the Divine Presence and deserving of Gd’s unlimited blessings.