“Now, the man Moshe was very humble, more so than any person on the face of the Earth”
– Numbers 12:3
A famous and familiar verse. But if Moshe Rabbeinu is our role model for humility, who is our Biblical exemplar for ego? There are a lot of contenders for that title, both Jewish and non-Jewish (because ego is a universal ill). Some candidates:
- Haman thought, “Who could the king want to honor more than me?” (Esther 6:6) and ended up falling before Mordechai, whom the king really wanted to honor.
- The pagan seer Balaam felt he deserved more honor than Balak, king of Moab, initially sent him (Numbers 22). Upon being honored to what he felt was the proper degree, Balaam cajoled G-d into letting him go on a fool’s errand, ultimately to his own destruction.
- King David’s rebellious son Avshalom (Absalom) died as a result of his own vanity in 2 Samuel chapter 18.
All of these exemplify the concept that “pride goeth before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). Nevertheless, despite the great number of worthy contenders, I think the prize has to go to Avimelech.
Who was Avimelech? There are several people by that name in Tanach. This Avimelech is the one in Shoftim. (There are also several Shoftims in Tanach. I refer to the book of Judges, not to the parsha by that name.) The Avimelech in question was a judge of Israel, a son of the great leader Gideon, who usurped the position by killing all his brothers lest they challenge him for the job. In Judges chapter 9, during a military siege, a woman dropped a millstone on Avimelech’s head, mortally wounding him. Avimelech was so egotistical that he asked his armor bearer to kill him so that history would not record that he was killed by a woman. Of course, not only does Tanach record that a woman killed him, it also tells us how worried he was about his ego, even in death. Suffice it to say, an over-inflated sense of one’s own importance seriously skews one’s sense of priorities.
How much better life would have been for the above-named individuals if they hadn’t been so full of themselves! Haman’s downfall started long before he assumed that Ahasuerus wanted to honor him; this was a man who was willing to commit genocide because one guy didn’t bow down to him. If he had been able to keep that impulse in check, he probably could have enjoyed a much longer career that might not have ended at the end of a rope. If Balaam hadn’t been swayed by high-ranking dignitaries and riches that he thought befitting his station, he would have stayed home, not to be humbled by a talking donkey and later killed. And if Avshalom had gotten a haircut, he wouldn’t have gotten stuck in a tree. (Get the full story in The Nach Yomi Companion at OU Torah.) If only these gentlemen had learned to silence their egos!
Ego is destructive. This is why I was impressed when I read about West CoastNCSY’s new campaign, #silenceyourego. According to their web site, found at http://silenceyourego.tumblr.com, this is a photo project whose goal is “to get people thinking about humility.” To that end, they ask people for their own personal reasons why they might want to be more humble. Participants print out a sign saying “I silence my ego to __________,” they fill in the blank, and then they upload a picture with their sign to Instagram.
The results are enlightening. While a project of West Coast NCSY, this initiative is not limited in terms of geography or demographics. People of all races and faiths nationwide are resolving to silence their egos for such reasons as:
- to make others happy;
- to be a better friend;
- to take advice;
- to find peace;
- to admit when I’m wrong;
- to be a better Jew;
- to see from other perspectives;
among many other compelling arguments.
Kudos to West Coast NCSY Regional Director Solly Hess and Director of Innovation Rabbi Adam Simon for this inventive approach to an age-old problem. Raising awareness is the first step to a solution. And while we can never hope to eradicate ego on a universal scale, learning to conquer it in ourselves can make us happier, healthier, and generally more pleasant to be around. At the very least, we’re less likely to find ourselves stuck in a tree or at the business end of a millstone.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of five books, including The Tzniyus Book. His latest work, The Taryag Companion, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.