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?


Ki Sisa – How Solid Is Your Sense Of Self?

imagesIn the aftermath of a scandal having to do with embezzlement from a charity, a woman wrote an article chiding people who responded with moral outrage, suggesting that none of us can be sure how we would act under similar circumstances, and therefore, we should not be so self-righteous and judgmental. I thought that idea was ridiculous. I know myself pretty well, and I couldn’t imagine any set of factors that would induce me to act like that. Embezzling from a charity? No way! And so my moral outrage stayed intact, thank you very much.

This week’s Torah portion, “Ki Sisa,” chronicles  the sin of the Golden Calf. I would like to think that I would never have participated in that terrible spectacle. If you have ever seen the movie, The Ten Commandments, where Charlton Heston calls out, “Whoever is for the Lord, join me!” and a woman’s voice cries out from the crowd, “I will!” – I would like to think that I am that kind of girl.

I would like to think that in any situation, my highest best bravest self would guide me, injecting me with the fortitude to do the right thing, no matter what. But that would be naive thinking.

Historically, psychologists used to believe that what matters most is the nature and character of the individual, and that “we are who we are,” and who we are – for better or worse – doesn’t vary, and we don’t quickly change our spots. Trying to change a character trait, they thought, was as futile an endeavor as an attempt to be taller, for example, and so little attention was paid to the environment or situation in studying character. In the last few decades, the social sciences offer a different view of the solidity of the self and the infallibility of character. And when you hear the studies, you might get a little uncomfortable.

The Shock “Ouch!”

In a landmark experiment which shook the world of the social sciences, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who was instructing them to commit acts against their personal conscience. He was testing the theory of whether people are inherently evil or situationally evil. Could a so-called “normal person” be induced to commit an immoral act and if so, what would it take?

Test subjects who participated in a study were told it was to understand the effect of physical punishment on memory, in which they were to administer escalating electric shocks for mistakes. So they would conduct progressively harder memory tests to someone hooked up to a machine that would deliver higher and higher levels of electricity when the person failed to recall a string of words.

The test participants didn’t know that they were the actual test subject. The test participants thought they were assisting a memory study on the person in the chair. In actuality, it was the test participants who were the object of the experiment, which was to study how submission to authority could induce an otherwise reasonable person to inflict cruelty.

At 150 volts, the person would be yelling to be let out of the experiment. At 450 volts, the person would fall silent, presumably dead. In between 150 volts and 450 volts, the person would be begging, crying, convulsing, etc. The machine was fake, the victims in the chair were actors, but the real results were “shocking.”

When the actor in the chair would beg and cry, and the participants would look up to see whether they should keep going, the “authority figure” – who held nothing more threatening that a clipboard – would simply and calmly say, “please continue” or the experiment must go on”. They weren’t threatened or coerced in any way to inflict pain.

Before the study, the prediction was that most people would stop at 150 volts, and a minute fraction of the test population (one-tenth of a percent, which roughly corresponds to the statistical probability of sociopaths) would administer an electric shock at fatal or near fatal levels. Boy did science get it wrong! A whopping 63% of the participants were willing to deliver shocks at near lethal levels!

As a result of this and other experiments (which were repeated in other guises but with similar results), researchers started looking seriously into the effect of groups and external environments on behavior. And so now current theory claims that the greatest predictor of behavior is the situation, the circumstances, and the context – hence, the phrase: “situational-press.”

Perhaps this helps to explain the incident of the Golden Calf. It is simply too easy to dismiss all of the participants as being the riff-raff that tagged along with the Jewish people when they left Egypt. It’s too easy to look at them as “unworthy,” “less than,” “and not like you” so that you can keep your moral outrage intact, and assume you are invincible.

The Power of Environment

Our environment influences us a great deal more than we think. Whether we get married, whether we smoke, whether we do a host of things, depends a lot on our social network and the people around us, because “social power” can exceed “will power.” Of course, Pirkei Avos (Ethics of Our Fathers) said as much when the Rabbis advised that in picking where to live, you should make sure that you have a good neighbor.

But like any force, “situational-press” has its negative as well as its positive applications. Some situations and people bring out the worst in you; but the reverse is also true, bringing your best self to the table.

Once you realize the power of “situational-press,” you can consciously create the environment, the social network, the physical surroundings, the activities and partners that are healthy, that support and reinforce your goals and aspirations. You can use “situational press” to surround yourself with that which inspires, uplifts and elevates you, rather than that which brings you down, undermines and sabotages your real goals.

Take an inventory of who and what you allow into your space, into your head, and into your life. Is it conducive to bringing out the best in you? Are you being inspired, elevated and motivated? Or is it bringing you down?

When you understand and use “situational-press,” or the “power of the situation,” to your best advantage, you can forge your own identity and shape your greatest destiny. In so doing, you will create such a solid sense of yourself, and no matter what challenges face you, you know for sure what kind of person you will be, what kind of choices you will make and you know for sure what you stand for.