Does being one of the Chosen People make you uncomfortable?

On Shavuot, we were chosen to keep G-d's Torah. What does being chosen mean?

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Rabbi Lazer Gurkow,

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow


Being Chosen

People always say, never let a compliment get to your head. But what does that mean? If the compliment is true, shouldn’t we own it, take pride in it and let it boost our self esteem? The obvious answer is that we don’t mind owning it. We mind growing arrogant and conceited. That is what we mean when we say never let a compliment get to your head. 

Fair enough. That is a decent answer. So, tell me this. How do we feel about belonging to the chosen people? Do we like being chosen or do we cringe with discomfort because it might get to our head? 

Our ancestors were not uncomfortable with their chosen status, they were proud of it. Even flaunted it. When they journeyed from Sinai, they asked G-d to array their tribes in the formation used by the angelic entourage at Sinai. Two rings around the center, the inner ring comprised of 22000 Levites and the outer ring comprised of 600 000 Jews. They didn’t try to hide the Sinaic event, they advertised it.

So why didn’t it get to their head? And if it didn’t get to their head, why would it get to our head?

Service

One oft repeated answer revolves around what we were chosen for. G-d didn’t choose us for honor, He chose us for service. Rabbi Gamliel once summoned two of his best students intending to appoint them to prestigious positions in his academy. Having discerned the purpose of his summons, they demurred. The rabbi sought them out and explained that in Judaism humility is not in conflict with prestige because a prestigious position renders one responsible, not entitled. A servant, not a master.

G-d singled us out from among the nations to serve Him. To be a nation of servants to teach and enlighten the nations. This is not a position of pride, it is a position of demanding service and hard work. it comes with high expectations and exacting demands; G-d holds us to a higher standard and drives us more forcefully than others. Such a demanding position doesn’t elicit pride. It elicits humble dedication.

In His Presence

Another answer revolves around whom we were chosen to serve. Pride usually results from feeling stronger, smarter, wealthier or better. When you are in a position of power, you sense your authority over others. When you are close to positions of power, you feel intoxicated by the power at your disposal. With the stroke of a pen, you can change people’s fortunes. With one word, you can chart the course of nations. It is a heady feeling.

However, that is only when the power is in your reach. Suppose that you are close to power, but it is beyond your reach. For example, you were caught trespassing in the White House and placed in a holding cell. You are across the hallway from the oval office, but that power source is beyond your reach. In this scenario, you don’t feel proud by your proximity. You feel humbled.

This a terrible simile for our discussion, but we will use it anyway because it works. Being chosen to stand before G-d gives us proximity to power that we can never reach. We can never be like G-d. Nor can we be better than anyone else before G-d. When we are distant from G-d, we might measure our ability against another’s and feel superior. But in G-d’s presence, we are all equally nothing.

To illustrate: A billion is much greater than one. But compared to infinity, one and a billion are equally insignificant. Similarly, before G-d, the one a little closer and the one a little further, are both equally infinitesimal. How can being infinitesimal get to your head?

Get to Your Head

Let’s dig a little deeper and explore whether any compliment should ever get to our head. Compliments can only get to our head if we lack self esteem. If we don’t feel equal to others, a compliment can pick us up. But it won’t put us on par with others. It will make us feel superior to others. It will act to reverse the status quo. If we were feeling lower, it will lift us and make us feel higher. The corollary is that if a compliment lifts us up, criticism, will take us down. A well-placed criticism, even if intended constructively, will bring us back down. 

If we are afraid that compliments might get to our heads and make us feel superior, we are even more afraid of criticism because it might get to our heads and make us feel inferior. Some people avoid the letdown of criticism by avoiding all compliments. If they aren’t artificially inflated, they can’t be artificially deflated. Other people respond by sucking up all compliments, and denying all criticism. Neither is a healthy approach.

What then is the solution to this vicious cycle?

Self Esteem

The answer is self esteem. If we feel comfortable with ourselves, if our core is strong, we don’t need a compliment to lift us up. When we receive it, it doesn’t make us feel haughty, it touches us deeply and inspires us to give back. This is because there is an ebb and flow to nature; what comes in must also come out. If you input a compliment, the output is a parallel compliment. If you input a kindness, the output is a parallel kindness. If we give our compliments back and don’t horde them, we don’t grow haughty.

However, when we lack self esteem and our core is empty, by that I mean that we don’t feel that our existence is precious or even valid, we become like a black hole; we suck up whatever is deposited in us and give nothing back. We become so desperate for positive feedback, that whenever we receive a compliment, we gobble it up and keep it for ourselves, hoping to fill our empty core. But sadly, our core can’t be filled by compliments. The core can only be filled by internal validation. In our youth, we receive it from our parents, in adulthood we can fill it by ourselves. But the core can’t be filled by compliments about surface attributes such as position, power, talent, beauty or achievement.

Thus, rather than boosting self esteem, compliments serve to make us arrogant. We trap the compliments within us and hold on to them desperately. We horde them until we believe them, and when we do, we think ourselves superior to others.

Our sages taught us that Jacob was humbled by generosity, whereas generosity made Ishmael grow haughty. Jacob was comfortable in his skin; his core was complete and he wasn’t starved for recognition. When he received it, it served to make him kinder. Ishmael was dying for attention. When he finally got some, it puffed him up with arrogance.

The upshot is this. If compliments get to your head, don’t work on humility, work on self esteem. If you are not comfortable with being chosen, don’t deny your chosenness. Learn to get comfortable. With yourself.






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