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Keeping The Ego In Check

Rabbi Avi Weiss

Rabbi Avi Weiss
Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In this week’s portion, Moshe is told he would not enter Israel because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it. Immediately afterward, Moshe sends a delegation to Edom asking that the Jewish people be allowed to go through his territory on their way to Israel (Numbers 20:14).

Commenting on this juxtaposition, the Midrash states: In the usual way, when a man is slighted by his business partner he wishes to have nothing to do with him; whereas Moses though he was punished on account of Israel did not rid himself of their burden, but sent messengers (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:7).

Nechama Leibowitz reinforces this idea by noting that the text states that Moshe sent the delegation to Edom from Kadesh. This fact is unnecessary. In the words of Leibowitz: “Wherever no change of locale is recorded in the text it is presumed that the event described took place at the last mentioned place. Kadesh is mentioned again to emphasize Moshe’s adherence to his mission of bringing the people to the land even after his rebuff in spite of the fact that he had been explicitly excluded from it.”

An important lesson may be learned here. Leaders must be careful to subdue their ego. The cause is larger than the personal concerns of any one person. Although Moses is condemned to die in the desert he continues to help the Jews enter Israel by sending messengers to Edom.

Compare this to the haftarah, the prophetic portion read this week. Yiftach promises God that if he is victorious in war whatever he sees first upon his return will be offered to God. Alas, he returns victorious and sees his daughter.

Here the Midrash (Tanchuma) notes that Yiftach could have gone to Pinchas the high priest to annul the vow. But Yiftach said, “Should I, the head of tribes of Israel, stoop to go to that civilian? Pinchas also did not go out of his way to go to Yiftach, proclaiming, Should I, a high priest, lower myself and go to that boor?”

Unlike Moshe, who was without ego, Yiftach and Pinchas were filled with it and it cost the life of that child.

A story is told of a chassidic rebbe who carried two notes in his pocket. One stated “The world was created for me.” The second declared “I am like the dust of the earth.” The first statement does not resonate unless balanced by the latter. Indeed, if ego is not kept tightly in check it can overwhelm or subtly subvert the endeavor to which one is dedicated.

About the Author: Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale. His memoir of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Open Up the Iron Door,” was recently published by Toby Press.

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