The Jewish Paradox of Standing Tall and Being Small

“True humility is not thinking less of yourself;

it is thinking of yourself less.”

– C.S. Lewis

The Desert

The Torah portion, Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness” or “in the desert” is always read before the holiday of Shavuot, which is when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai. The classic commentary on this is that the best state in which to receive Torah, is when we make ourselves into a desert, meaning that we nullify our egos and enter into a state of total humility. 

This makes a lot of sense. After all, the desert is an appropriate place for encounters with the Divine (think Burning Bush) as well as the setting for many spiritual journeys. In the desert, there are no material distractions, no cultural noise, and no exits from its stark reality.  

The opening line of the Torah portion is: “And God spoke to Moses in the desert.” The word “midbar” (desert) anddibur” (speech) share the same root, and so the relationship between the desert and speech – Divine speech – is beautifully correlated. For starters, speech represents freedom.  The First Amendment, which guarantees free speech, is considered fundamental and integral to a free society.   Slaves, on the other hand, have no voice. They are silenced. Their opinion is irrelevant, as they are not seen as people, but as property.

On Passover, which is the holiday commemorating the exodus from slavery into freedom, we read from the “Hagadda.” The word Hagadda derives from “lehagid” which means, “to tell,” and so integral to that transition is the telling of a story, that we re-tell every year. In her TED talk on vulnerability, shame researcher Brene Bown defines courage as the ability to tell the story of who you are – with your whole heart.

But speech only works when one is able and willing to both talk and listen. And to listen, and truly hear what the other is trying to say, requires patience, focus and humility. Therefore, the desert is the ideal location for the Jewish people to be open to this Divine speech for there is no distraction.

We don’t have to be physically in a desert to consciously strip away the layers of egocentricity that distort our clarity. By shutting out the noise that distracts us, we can transform ourselves into an appropriate desert of open receptivity. As the Lubavitcher Rebbe stated: “Without question, the material world and your everyday needs distract you from living meaningfully.” While this is the theme oft-repeated in this Torah portion, in my opinion, it’s only half of the picture. Focus on that idea alone (as great as it is) and we’re missing out on a really great paradox.           

The Jewish Paradox

The first line ends with God’s command to Moses to take a census. Rashi, the medieval commentator, teaches us to understand this to mean the following: that God loves us and counts us, just like we like to count our prized possessions. We are not counted by ability, wealth or status, but by identity – signaling that we are unique, precious and beloved. No two people are alike, no one can contribute to the world in the same way, and so, we are singularly purposeful.

On the one hand, we are elevated, each soul, a precious and unique possession, and yet on the other, we should be lowly, like a barren desert, indistinguishable and insignificant as shifting sand. So which is right? The Jewish answer is, of course, that both are right. It’s a Jewish paradox.

In fascinating research done at the Stanford Business School, Jim Collins was able to provide answers as to why some companies are visionary and successful and others are not.  It seems to depend on the companies’ ability to chose between contradictory concepts, and the ability to embrace both sides of the coin, adopting a strategy known as the “genius of the and” and rejecting thinking characterized as “the tyranny of the or.”  Being limited by either/or thinking isn’t good for corporations and it certainly isn’t good for people either.

When it comes to receiving the Torah, we must humble ourselves, create the space to take it in and learn, at times, to focus on our collective identity rather than our individual identity. As Marianne Williamson says, “When the ego steps back, the power of God steps forward.” But when it comes to living the Torah, we must stand tall and be counted and know who we are. We are created and yearn to reach our highest possibilities. Being a light unto nations and repairing the world is simply not a job for wimps. 

The paradox is that we must always be simultaneously embracing both sides of the coin if we are to understand either side of the coin, and that is a lesson, not just in preparation for Shavuot, but for any time of the year.

Internalize & Actualize:

  1. Write down five things that take up the majority of your time on a daily basis. Now, write down five things you would do and focus on if you had the time. This week, cut out ten minutes of each day to focus on one of those five. By the end of the week you will have spent more than an hour on something you find meaningful that you had previously not made time for.
  1. Think about someone or a situation that silences you–where you feel you had no say or that no one would listen to your opinion. How does that make you feel? Now write down what you want to say to that person or in that situation. Can you think of some practical ways you can begin to get that message across and reclaim your voice?
  1. We all struggle with our ego at times. And more often than not, it leads to avoidable problems. Where in your life could you use more humility? What do you think would change if you could lessen your ego?