Vaera: The bane of arrogance

Of kings and subjects.

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow


Arrogance
Judaism has unique ideas, ones you’d be hard pressed to find anywhere else. For example, Judaism teaches that the king (for that matter the president, prime minister or any other kind of leader) be the humblest in all of society. While arrogance is a sin for all people, it is particularly vile in a king.


A king has two reasons to be humble. Firstly, the king ought to be humble toward G-d. The king doesn’t provide for the nation’s welfare, G-d does. The king guides and positions the nation for success, but any blessing derived from the king’s direction derives from G-d. The king is merely a conduit for G-d’s blessing. Not unlike, the moon to the sun. As ridiculous as it would be for the moon to take pride in the sun’s light that it reflects toward earth, so is arrogance in a king.


Arrogance in a king is ridiculous for a second reason. While the king lords over the nation, he is in truth, its servant. He serves at their behest and his power is endowed by them. There is no king without a nation; it is only in their merit that his office exists. Kings don’t form nations around them. Nations appoint kings over them. For the king to lord it over the very nation that created his office and appointed him to it, is nothing short of ridiculous.


Of course the nation’s contract with the king is to honor and obey him. That is the condition of monarchy. But the king must never permit himself to become arrogant over this. Although he conducts himself with majesty, pomp and ceremony, his private heart must be humble. Humble toward G-d, who’s blessing he channels and humble toward the nation that has bestowed the monarchy upon him.


The Heart
Proper reflection yields the realization that a king contributes little in the way of tangible benefit to the nation. The nation is provided for by its ministries. The interior ministry provides security. The financial ministry controls its economy. It defense ministry defends the nation. The foreign ministry represents the nation to the world. What does the king contribute?


The king doesn’t contribute to the nation. The king is the nation. The Hebrew word for king is melech and it is an acronym for three Hebrew words, moach, lev and Kaved, mind, heart and liver. The king is the heart of the nation. He is the embodiment of the nation’s critical organs. Without a king, the nation is fragmented into competing forces of leadership. The king brings the nation together. He is the center around which the nation rallies.


He is not just a figure head. He is the personification of the entire nation. This is why the king’s name is invoked, when patriotic passions are stirred. For king and for nation, goes the rallying cry. Because the king, is the nation. But this is a two way street. If the king is the nation, then the nation is also the king. The king is not higher, greater or better than the nation, he is the nation and the nation is him. Beyond the usual contract between nation and king, they owe him nothing.


Monarchy
Kingship is G-d’s alone. Only G-d is truly king. By what right does one human rule over another? The answer is that G-d bestowed kingship upon the human king. Indeed, when Jews sees a king, we recite a blessing, “Blessed are you Lord, our G-d, king of the world, who has apportioned from his glory to flesh and blood.” The glory of kingship is G-d’s and he conferred it upon the king.


Thus the king is a recipient on two counts. His appointment comes from the nation and his kingship comes from G-d. He is the heart of the nation and the embodiment of G-d’s kingdom. It is thus equally ludicrous for him to feel arrogance toward either the nation or toward G-d.


Pharaoh
The mighty Pharaoh failed mightily on both counts. He was arrogant toward G-d and toward his people. When Pharaoh heard that the savior of Israel would be born, he instructed that all male newborns, Hebrew and Egyptian, be thrown into the Nile. He turned against his own people to protect his pride. When Moses approached him with a message from G-d to liberate the Hebrews, Pharaoh responded arrogantly that he knows of no such deity called the G-d of the Hebrews.


Pharaoh was conceited, where he should have been humble, and in typical Divine fashion, G-d used Pharaoh’s own arrogance against him. When the plagues began and Pharaoh declared his willingness to concede to G-d and release the Hebrews, G-d punished Pharaoh by removing his freewill and forcing him to deny G-d.


Similarly, when the people of Egypt demand that Pharaoh release the Hebrews to put a stop to the plagues, Pharaoh found himself unable to concede. When he had opportunity to respect G-d, he denied G-d. When he had the opportunity to respect the nation, he hounded them. Thus when he wanted to respect G-d and grant the nation their request, G-d mocked him by removing his freewill.


This was the ultimate punishment. Arrogance drives us to place ourselves before everyone. In punishment, G-d denied Pharaoh the ability to do what was in his own best interest. He used the tool of Pharaoh’s sin, namely arrogance, as his punishment.


Lesson
The truth is that arrogance is a greater affront in a king than in a citizen. The person who stands before G-d and embodies G-d’s attribute of kingship is called upon to be exceedingly humble. Arrogance in a king is a violation of the very conditions that entitle him to kingdom.


Yet there is a message for all of us, humble citizens. If the king, who lords over the nation is expected to be humble, how much more so is it expected of us. Humility comes when we realize that everything we own, our properties, our families and our very lives belong to G-d and are given by G-d. Everything we can possibly be proud of, is actually attributable to G-d. For us to claim credit for G-d’s achievements is ludicrous. It is an affront to the largess that G-d bestowed upon us.


To be humble means to accept G-d into our midst and to give him credit for all that is ours. Everything we can be proud of comes from G-d. As for anything else, what is there to be proud of? As Winston Churchill famously commented about Clemente Atlee, “He has a modest man who has much to be modest about.”






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