Success: Arrogance or Humility ?
Why does success evoke arrogance in some and humility in others? This forthcoming week (Thursday / Friday) will the 19th / 20th of the Hebrew month Kislev – which marks the 213th anniversary of the release in 1798 of the “Alter Rebbe” (“Old Rebbe” - Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi – the founder of the Chabad – Lubavitch Chassidic movement) from Czarist prison.
I want to share a beautiful article, which is based upon the letter that the Alter Rebbe wrote then shortly after his release from that imprisonment, explaining a passage in this week’s Torah portion, which might help bring the concepts of that letter a bit closer to home, for ourselves today.
By R. Holzkenner
There is the famous anecdote about Shmuel, a Jerusalem lawyer, who was on his way to court for an important trial but, sadly, had a late start to his morning. By the time he got to the courthouse, all the parking spots were taken. He drove around for five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and no luck. Twenty minutes passed, and he began to get desperate. After thirty minutes of circling the parking lot and the adjacent neighborhoods in utter futility, the time for his court appearance fast approaching, he turns his head heavenward and shouts, “Master of the universe! I swear I will give 10 percent of my earnings to charity each year, pray three times a day, start a Torah study group in my home, I’ll wait six hours between meat and dairy foods. Only just this: I need a place to park right now!” Just as he finishes this heart-wrenching plea, a guy pulls out of a parking spot right in front of him. Shmuel turns to G‑d and says, “Never mind, I found a spot!”
Most people beg for success, but many have a bizarre reaction when they’re lucky enough to find it. I had always been afraid of good luck. Unconsciously I thought that when something good happens, something bad would follow to balance it out. A frightening thought. I was suspicious of good fortune, looking over my back to the trouble that would follow. And because I couldn’t embrace my blessings, I couldn’t comfortably thank G‑d for them. Another instinctive reaction to prosperity is arrogance. There is a sense that good has come to me because I am intrinsically deserving of it. I’m just the type of person who should drive a luxury car and hang out with the classy folk. Like Samuel, who forgot about G‑d after he found a parking spot, the more bounty we are blessed with, the more likely we may be to forget about G‑d. What is the key to graciously accepting blessings in life, while not growing callous because of them?
In 1798, on the 19th day of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad Chassidism, was miraculously released from incarceration in S. Petersburg. In a heartfelt letter, he then shared with his followers the most effective way to process good fortune, through a study of the words of Jacob, the archetypal beneficiary. After leaving his father-in-law’s home in Haran, Jacob prepared to meet his twin brother Esau, and asked G‑d to save him from harm. He prefaced his request by saying to G‑d, “I have become small from all the favors You have done to Your servent.”
As a result of all of the prosperity that he’d experienced in Haran, Jacob was concerned that he’d become small and no longer deserving for G‑d to save him from Esau. At first glance, it seems that Jacob was thinking that good brings bad. Since You gave me wealth, I’ve probably expended all of my “credit” with You, and now I’m in for some trouble with Esau. But when looking closely at Jacob’s words, he is saying something quite different. “I have become small . . .” It’s not my merits that have diminished; it is me who has become small. Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that every favor that G‑d grants a person should engender more humility, because the person has been brought closer to G‑d and now has a greater appreciation of his own smallness. Jacob understood that throughout his time in Haran, G‑d had reached down and generously extended chessed, lovingkindness, towards him—his vast wealth and his growing family. Like the warm embrace of love, the kindness was there to bring Jacob closer to G‑d, and Jacob felt this closeness very palpably. The closeness is what made him feel so entirely humble. Take, for example, the experience of meeting a member of royalty. The overwhelming sensation of being in such presence would be that of humility. The closer you are, the more you sense the disparity between royalty and simplicity. In a far more exaggerated form, this was Jacob’s experience. The more he received, the more he felt G‑d’s warm and close embrace, and the more humble he grew. He also expected more of himself as his close relationship with G‑d progressed. Jacob was now concerned. Since G‑d had drawn him so close during his stay in Haran, he now held himself to a new standard. On this new grading stick, he might not deserve to be saved from Esau. His fear was proven unfounded; G‑d felt that he was well deserving. But what is important is Jacob’s perspective of humility, and his motivation to redefine his standard of service of the Almighty.
In his letter, Rabbi Schneur Zalman shared with his disciples how to process their immense joy in his release. Perhaps we can categorize this method as follows: A wholehearted acceptance of good fortune. It’s always nice to be gracious when you’re given a gift, to look the giver in the eye and say “thank you”—for the gift and for the sentiment behind it! When G‑d gives me a loving hug, it’s okay to feel comfortable enough to absorb and enjoy its significance. Once I’ve allowed myself to feel G‑d’s affirmation and love through the good things He’s shared with me, I will naturally grow more sensitive and humble. Finally, when I’m conscious of being actively courted by G‑d into an intimate relationship, I begin to view myself differently, holding myself to a higher standard of commitment to G‑d. Hopefully, a reaction of greater commitment “encourages” G‑d to begin the cycle once again with another hug of good fortune.
Based on Tanya, Part IV (Igeret Hakodesh), Epistle 2, and Likkutei Sichot, vol. 5, p. 396 (excerpt from chabad.org).
For more information about the holiday of 19 Kislev, please click here.