“The Haughty Heart”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the many topics discussed in this week’s parasha, parashat Shoftim, are the rules and regulations that apply to a king of Israel.

Judaism’s attitude regarding the concept of monarchy is rather ambivalent (Shoftim 5767-2007). After all, only G-d is King. Therefore, the Jewish king’s authority, while significant, is highly regulated.

The king of Israel is meant to lead and inspire the people, setting an example of selflessness and wholehearted service to G-d. Consequently, when the people approached the prophet Samuel and demanded a king (I Samuel 8:20) “So that they [the people] could be like all the surrounding nations,” Samuel was angry and disappointed.

When the Torah declares, Deuteronomy 17:15, “Sohm tah’seem ah’leh’chah meh’lech ah’sher yiv’char Hashem Eh’lo’keh’chah boh,” You shall surely set over yourselves a king whom the L-rd, your G-d, shall choose, it was intended that a Jewish king be different from the monarchs of other nations and those who aspire only for glory, wealth and conquest. The Jewish king must be righteous, one who would lead the people away from the vagaries of the mundane world, and inspire them in the ways of G-d.

The Torah in Deuteronomy 17:16-20 provides a list of rules and regulations governing the king’s behavior. The king must be of unquestionable Jewish origin. He may not possess too many horses for himself or have too many wives. When he sits on the throne, the king shall have two copies of the book of the Torah before him, which shall be with him and from which he shall read, all the days of his life. The king must observe all the words of the Torah and its decrees, and perform them. And, finally, the Torah states in Deuteronomy 17:20 that the reason for all these regulations and restrictions is, “L’vil’tee room l’vah’voh may’eh’chav, oo’l’vil’tee sor min ha’mitzvah yah’meen oo’smohl, l’mah’ahn yah’ah’reech yah’meem ahl mahm’lahch’toh, hoo oo’vah’nahv b’kerev Yisrael,” So that his [the king’s] heart not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that he will continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.

Despite the fact that the very institution of monarchy is predicated on pomp and circumstance, there is much to be learned about haughtiness from the Torah’s view of Jewish monarchy.

According to Jewish law, parents, rabbis, and even high priests have the right to allow others to treat them “casually.” Under certain circumstances, they may allow others to call them by their first names, to sit in their designated seats, and to publicly disagree with them. A parent who renounces his right to be honored has the prerogative to do so. Not so a king. A king may never allow his honor to be compromised and no one may ever treat the king with disrespect.

Despite his unchallenged right to honor, the Torah instructs the king never to be haughty–that grandeur is G-d’s alone, says the Ramban. Human beings may take pride only in their degree of service to G-d.

Beyond the issue of kingship and haughtiness, the rabbis and commentators have much to say about hubris and self-aggrandizement regarding the common person as well.

Whether those who are prideful possess great talents or lack any talent whatsoever, pridefulness, under any circumstances, is a detestable character trait. King Solomon, in Proverbs 29:23, states, “A man’s pride shall bring him low, and he who is of lowly spirit shall attain honor.” Citing the parable of a camel who demanded horns and had his ears cut off and was left with nothing, the rabbis warned that all those who possess a haughty spirit will eventually be reduced. The Talmud in Sotah 5a asserts that those who seek glory, glory will flee from them, and that those who flee from glory, glory will pursue them. Furthermore, the Talmud continues that Rav Chasida (others say Mar Ukava) said: Concerning an arrogant person, the Holy One, blessed be He, declares: “I and he cannot both live in the same world.”

The Talmud in Brachot 55a states that haughtiness is among three things that shorten a person’s life and years. The Talmud in Sotah 9b relates that Absalom, King David’s son, gloried in his beautiful hair and was ultimately hanged by his hair. The Talmud in Sotah 4a states that anyone who is haughty is considered an idolater, and that haughtiness is considered an abomination. Rabbi Yochanan says that a haughty person is like one who denies the Al-mighty, as it says (Deuteronomy 8:14), “And your heart will become grand, and you will forget the L-rd.”

The Ethicists abhor haughtiness, and regard the haughty person as a transgressor of 17 negative commandments and 17 positive commandments. A haughty person, they declare, should be denied entry into one’s home.

Even great scholars need to be modest. In Eruvin 55a, the Talmudic sage Rabbah interpreted the verse from Deuteronomy 30:12, “Lo va’shah’mayim hee,” It is not in heaven, as meaning that Torah will never be found among those whose haughtiness rises to heaven. Pesachim 113a states that a haughty scholar loses his wisdom. One who takes upon himself additional stringencies regarding things that are permitted is considered a haughty person. The Talmud in Chagiga 18b describes a person who ritually washes his hands before eating vegetables (an ancient practice that is no longer followed) as haughty. Among the four things that are mentioned in Pesachim 113b that cannot be tolerated is a communal leader who lords over the community.

Nevertheless, there are times when scholars, rabbis or wise men need to assert authority. However, the rabbis have limited this display of haughtiness to “one eighth of an eighth.” Thus, one who exceeds 1/64 is considered haughty.

The great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik would often refer to himself as “Melamed dar’d’kay,” a kindergarten teacher. Despite his legion of accomplishments, many academic degrees and his masterful erudition, he recognized that more learning takes place during a child’s formative years than during any other time in a person’s life, and that it is often the humble person, absorbed with love for others, who is most capable of transmitting great ideas and positive behavioral qualities to others.

May you be blessed.