Parashat Ekev

The Challenges Of Humility

We should respond to our prosperity with recognition of the factors that lead to our success and with humility before God.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from the Union for Reform Judaism.

Parashah Overview

  • Moses tells the Israelites that if they follow God's laws, the nations who now dwell across the Jordan River will not harm them. (Deuteronomy 7:12–26)

  • Moses reminds the people of the virtues of keeping God's commandments. He also tells them that they will dispossess those who now live in the Land only because they are idolatrous, not because the Israelites are uncommonly virtuous. Thereupon, Moses reviews all of the trespasses of the Israelites against God. (Deuteronomy 8:1–10:11)

  • Moses says that the Land of Israel will overflow with milk and honey if the people obey God's commandments and teach them to their children. (Deuteronomy 10:12–11:25)

Focal Point

When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to Adonai your God for the good land that God has given you. Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep God's commandments, rules, and laws, which I enjoin upon you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God, who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage … and you say to yourselves, "My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me." (Deuteronomy 8:10–14; 8:17)

Your Guide

Moses is concerned that when the people become prosperous, they will forget about God. Do you think that this is a reasonable concern? Why? How do people fall into this kind of trap?

In verse 10 we are told that when we have eaten our fill, we must thank God. This commandment is the basis of the Birkat HaMazon, "Grace after Meals." How might saying the Birkat HaMazon or a blessing before a meal be an antidote to the danger of forgetting to thank God? Can you think of some other antidotes?

What else do we take for granted in the modern world? Can you cite a time when you were guilty of doing that? In contrast, can you recall a time when you recognized God's presence and were grateful for it? What was the difference between those two instances?

Humility is a quality that Jewish tradition deems very important, but often when we think we are being humble, we aren't! How important do you think humility is? What are some actions that reflect humility? Is the practice of humility an antidote to taking God and other things for granted? How?

Why is it so difficult to remain humble when we are engaged in acts of creation? Since we live in a world in which science gives us so many answers and the ability to do so many things, how is this especially true for us? What recent scientific advances might lead us to take God for granted and believe too strongly in our own powers?

Which leaders have influenced world events by their lack of humility? Which leaders have influenced world events by exhibiting humility?

By the Way…

A rich man once boasted to the Hafetz Hayyim [20th century rabbinic figure] that God had granted him great wealth and there was nothing he lacked. The Hafetz Hayyim said to him, "You should therefore devote a few hours daily to Torah study." The man replied, "I don't have the time for it." "If that is so," said the Hafetz Hayyim, "you are the poorest of the poor because if your time is not your own, what do you have? There is no person who is poor in time." (Y. Yefet in Torah Gems, volume III, p. 213)

The Kotzker [Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, nineteenth century Hasidic figure] said that he was amazed people did not acquire an appreciation of God from the Grace after Meals. Indeed, we are told that the way in which Abraham spread the knowledge of God was by inviting guests to eat with him, and when they began to thank him for the meal, he would say to them, "I am not the one who must be thanked but the Lord of the universe." In that way, he made them true believers. We thus see that the Grace after Meals will bring one to a belief in God. (Mei-otzar Ha-Hasidut in Torah Gems, volume III, p. 209)

"The rich and poor meet: The Eternal is the Maker of them all" (Proverbs 22:2). The rich man usually thinks that he attained his wealth because of his brilliance, while the poor are generally looked down upon as ne'er-do-wells who cannot succeed because of a lack of ability. However, when "the rich and poor meet," when they happen to be in the same place at the same time, one can in most cases see that the poor man is no less intelligent than the rich one. (Tzvi Hirsh Berliner in Torah Gems, volume III, p. 213)

When you turn proud, remember that a flea preceded you in the order of Divine Creation. (Tosefta, Sanhedrin)

The greatest minds are those that, even in the act of creation, remain humble. (Fioretti Luzzatti, cited in A Treasury of Jewish Quotations, p. 192)

Your Guide

Based on these texts, how do you think that Judaism views humility and a lack of it?

What do these texts suggest as possible antidotes to a lack of humility? With which antidote(s) do you agree?

How does the Hafetz Hayyim define the rich and the poor? How does this text resonate for us today?

D'var Torah

North American Jews enjoy a level of prosperity and freedom that is unprecedented in the history of the Jewish people. This is good. Or is it? Does living comfortably lead us to take what we have for granted? The "American dream" teaches us that if we work hard, we can climb the ladder of success. But when we do succeed, who deserves the credit? Are our own hard work and intelligence the only reasons for our success?

We are not being truly honest if we don't admit that there are other contributing factors. The family into which we are born, the schools we attend, and the communities in which we are raised all play a major role in who we become and how we succeed.

And then there is God. Does God play a role? For what should we be grateful to God? The answer to this question depends to some degree on one's personal theology. Do we believe that God intervenes in our lives in some way or not? And even if we do not believe that God has an effect on events, we have much for which to be grateful. God as Creator has made a world in which so much is possible. God has created each human being with many gifts--gifts that can help each of us lead a better life.

In this era of advanced technology, scientific knowledge, and material success, it is very easy for us to lose our humility and sense of awe. In a world on the verge of cloning human beings, it is easy for us to become arrogant about what we can accomplish and to forget that God is the Source of all.

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Paula L. Feldstein is a rabbi at Temple Emanuel, Worcester, MA.