So here’s the life lesson offered by Megillat Esther: Ga‘avah is dangerous – not only to the targets of one’s arrogance but also to the one who exudes it. Haman’s extreme arrogance led to his total downfall. After telling his wife and friends about “the glory of his wealth” (5:11), how the king promoted and elevated him above the other officials, his many sons, and the invitation he received to the queen’s exclusive party, Haman seemingly had it all. Nonetheless, it is declared in 5:13, “all this means nothing to me because of the Jew, Mordechai.” Haman’s bruised ego and insatiable arrogance could not deal with the fact that this one person – out of thousands – would not bow down to him. Ultimately his ga’avah caused him to lose everything. And Esther’s and Mordechai’s anivut led to their elevation – and the saving of the Jewish people.
I know Purim is over, but Megillat Esther is so rich with lessons on how people should live their lives – along with the consequences of not doing so – that I wish to share one of the many wisdoms that I have gleaned from reading it. I believe that the world wouldn’t be in the mess it is in – economically, socially and spiritually – if people would only open their eyes to the megillah’s masterful insights on how to behave.
A personality trait that often leads to really bad behavior imbues the personality of the story’s bad guy, Haman. Its diametric opposite is found in the characters of the story’s heroes, Esther and Mordechai. These traits are ga’avah and anivut.
I suppose that arrogance is the English word that comes closest to describing ga’avah. But this does not do it enough justice. It’s a state of mind whereby a person feels he is better than and superior to everyone, and is even above the rules. It is an attitude that enables a person to look down on other individuals – or even entire groups. Ga’avah often manifests itself as elitism at best – where only certain people are, for example, allowed into a club, hotel or organization – or blatant racism at worst, which can lead to life-threatening oppression or genocide. It is a characteristic that is ruinous to all relationships and interactions, be it at home or in the workplace, in houses of worship, or in the halls of government.Sadly, there are individuals and groups in our own Orthodox communities who are afflicted with unwarranted ga’avah, which translates into looking down on a fellow Jew because he has, for example, less money, less power, or less “yichus.” It can also apply to things as superficial as having the wrong head covering.
Sometimes a ga’avadike person has really achieved quite a bit, and may be financially or socially ahead of the pack. Hence he truly feels “important.” I believe, though, that ga’avah is actually fueled by a subconscious lack of self-liking, the outcome of which is low self-esteem. Since no one likes to think that they are worthless, their bruised ego tries to artificially elevate itself by putting others down, minimizing those they see as an easy target. Unhappily, that target is often a spouse, child, classmate, neighbor, or student. All are at risk of being humiliated or denigrated – or even worse.
Looking down in distain, mocking, or making fun of someone is a manifestation of ga’avah. Another sign is a sense of entitlement. An unwavering belief that you deserve more than the next fellow by virtue of your superiority more often than not leads to unmitigated greed. I believe that the collapsing global economy and the near drowning of so many financial and corporate giants who did not sink because of the monetary life-buoys thrown to them by the government was caused by a rampant sense of entitlement and greed that led to caution being thrown to the wind. No doubt it is blatant ga’avah that makes these corporate executives feel that they deserve astronomical bonuses to the tune of millions of dollars – paid for by the “lesser” beings, namely the typical American taxpayer.
Conversely, anivut can be described as modesty as it pertains to one’s sense of self-achievement. People with this attribute are usually high achievers; they actually do have something to crow about. But they don’t, since they believe that their accomplishments are not a big deal. Unlike ga’avadike people, they do not toot their own horns or feel superior to anyone.
Esther definitely had bragging rights, for she was related to the royal house of Saul and was so incredibly beautiful that she was chosen from hundreds of other gorgeous women to be the king’s consort. Yet she was very unassuming. Her modesty and lack of arrogance even endeared her to Hegai, custodian of the harem, who took her under his wing and advised her.
Mordechai also was entitled to feel arrogant. After all he saved the king’s life, and was related to the queen. But he obviously did not brag about his importance, since no one knew these facts. The fact that the king asked if Mordechai was rewarded for saving him clearly shows that Mordechai did not bring it to his or anyone else’s attention after the incident happened – though he certainly deserved to have this publicized.