I’ve Fallen But I Can Still Get Up
This week’s Torah portion depicts the confrontation between Jacob and Esau that took place upon Jacob’s return to the Land of Canaan, a clash that ended amicably as the brothers parted in peace. The Torah relates that as Jacob approached his brother, he bowed seven times. The commentaries say that these genuflections were a message to Esau and his bravado, that as many times as he appears to overpower his younger sibling, Jacob would still recover and eventually prevail.
This concept is reflected in the verse in Proverbs 24:16, “Seven times will a righteous one fall and yet rise.” We often envision a tzadik (righteous individual) to be someone with a strong natural push towards spirituality, generosity, and devotion to G-d in general. Everything they do is measured, thought-out, done out of selflessness and commitment to the greater good. They are good at being great.
It is this misconception that is put to rest by King Solomon in the above verse. The tzadik does not start out with a spiritual silver spoon in his mouth. He or she does not intuitively grasp right and wrong – and even if he or she does, the skill does not qualify that person as pious. True piety is not evident in how we succeed, but in how we fail. The righteous one is committed to trying again, because of the importance of the task, and the relative unimportance to him of his self-image. He is defined by his devotion, not his accomplishment, and because of that he perseveres. The rest of us may try at times, even try hard, but are willing to accept the notion that we are just not cut out to be so spiritually great, or find the sacrifices involved too extensive. The righteous succeed not because they are innately better, but because they care more.
It is not just the reaction to failure that distinguishes the tzadik, but his/her initiative as well. It is difficult to take on challenges that are likely to end in the short-term in failure. Most shy away from tasks that are too far out of their comfort zone. The righteous one is willing to embark on the bumpy road if it holds out at least a possibility of spiritual gold at the end.
How can we achieve this level of commitment? What can we use to motivate us to become righteous, and not feel that it is for the spiritual ‘naturals’? We can start by recognizing how much better we would feel about ourselves if we grew. The tool of the destructive voice inside is to inform us that we are not good enough, that trying to be righteous is a manifestation of our deluded ego, not of our dedication to goodness. ‘Who are you kidding, pretending to be so good’, it says. That is the voice of Esau, of brute strength aiming to conquer all that is before it. Rising above that negativity would open new horizons for us, and make what seemed impossible until now doable. Investing in that, and accomplishing that, would be worth a lot of pain and frustration, even a lot of failure.
The actions of our forefathers are a guide to us, says Nachmanides in his introduction to the book of Genesis. The actions of Jacob in this meeting read as instructions to us in combating the Esau inside of us, our more material, selfish selves. Jacob’s message is: the foe may seem formidable, and we may at times bow and cower before him, but we are not defeated. We are not afraid to try, not afraid to lose, because arises from all that failure is a better us, and that is the ultimate success.
Homo Sans Sapiens
Human foibles never cease to amaze. Be they idiosyncrasies of the modern era or age-old miscalculations doomed by historical ignorance to be repeated, people consistently do things that run counter to all logic. And we dare to call ourselves homo sapiens, meaning ‘wise man’! It is a debatable pronouncement, to be sure.
An example of astoundingly irrational behavior occurs in this week’s Torah portion, as it recounts the seventh plague G-d visited on the Egyptians. Moshe tells Pharaoh and his subjects that G-d will rain down “barad”, a lethal concoction of fire-bearing hail, upon them. He then tells them how to save themselves and their possessions – simply bring them inside your homes, he says. The hail won’t affect what’s safely inside, he promises. The humiliated Egyptians have already suffered six devastating plagues at the hands of G-d. One would think that Moshe’s prediction would at least merit some precaution, that Pharaoh and his people would keep themselves and their property indoors at the appointed time, to be safe. But the verses say otherwise.
“One who feared G-d would bring his servants and cattle inside. And one who did not pay attention to the word of G-d, left his servants and cattle in the fields.”
There were those, and apparently not a small number, of people who ignored Moshe’s warnings, and took their chances with the hail, with disastrous consequences. The phrasing ‘and one who did not pay attention’ stands out in particular. Perhaps we would expect the Torah to describe such miscreants as ‘defiant’. Perhaps ‘heretics’ would be appropriate. But could there still be Egyptians who were simply ‘not paying attention to the word of G-d’? One would think that six plagues would at least get them to take such Divine previews somewhat seriously! What where these people thinking?
R’ Yakov Yisrael Kanievsky (The Steipler Gaon) in his work “Birkas Peretz” addresses this question. He says that the Torah here teaches us a fundamental lesson in human behavior. Humans don’t act on their thoughts. They act on their emotions. That, of course, is not news to us. What the Torah hammers home here is how far that goes. It takes effort for humans to do anything based on logic. By nature, humans do what they want to do, and develop logical arguments to justify their actions and positions. It is to the extent that if someone does not want to admit to a fear, a danger, or a higher authority, they will find a way to explain it away. The Egyptian property owners in question convinced themselves that the first six instances of Divine retribution were an accident, or sufficient, or G-d demonstrating his mastery of the beginners’ set of miracles. They said that such hail is beyond even G-d’s abilities, or that G-d was setting the Egyptians up with his other feats, so that Pharaoh would let the Israelites go when he heard this latest threat. G-d would never be so cruel to the Egyptians, they thought. He wouldn’t be able to beat the Egyptian gods who were masters of fire, they reasoned, or He really wants all of us to stand up to Him, to earn His respect. But in reality, they were in denial that they, the mightiest people on the planet, were really not so mighty. They did not want to face that fact, so it didn’t intrude on their decisions.
The problem is, it is not just the Egyptians who suffer from this irrationality. Every one of us does this to ourselves, more often than we care to admit, and perhaps more often than not. Logic, reason, prudence, and reality can be quite subjective, unless we make recognizing and acting according to objective logic and reality a priority. Having “Yiras Shamayim’, a strong awareness of the awesomeness of G-d, gives us the ability to prioritize such a life of truth. Without it, we can experience open miracles, and yet simply not pay attention. As we see from the plague of “barad”, the results can be catastrophic.
Rabbi Raphael Landesman is currently Head of School at Shearim Torah High School for Girls in Phoenix, AZ. He writes Torah content for the Phoenix Community Kollel's weekly "Shabbos Spirit" and periodically for the Arizona Jewish News.