We live in a time when even the most “humble” among us seems to have a blog, or a Twitter account, or a website, or some other way or means for amplifying his voice, perspectives, “teachings,” etc. As you can imagine, if the humble person is so quick to trumpet his gifts, the more prideful individual is certain to make sure we hew to his view of the world.
We are a prideful creation. Yet we know – from our teachings and our experience – that pride is a guaranteed prelude to a fall. How then to step away from our pride? The only way to become humble is to be honest about our experience, for experience is the only route we have to genuine humility.
Life is never lived in the theoretical, sacred ideal we aspire to; it is always lived in the complex, nitty-gritty of human experience.
There is a midrash that relates that as Aharon gazed at the mizbeach, it suddenly appeared to him as the Golden Calf. The image shook him to the core of his being and filled him with such fear that he could not approach it.
Here we have the Kohen Gadol preparing for his avodah in the Mishkan itself and what image fills his mind? The most profane and degrading symbol of the newly redeemed Jews, the egel hazahav.
Now, imagine a contemporary melamed who, as he stands before his class teaching Gemara to his students, notices a student seemingly lost in a daydream.
“Yankel,” the rabbi asks, “what are you thinking about? Here I am, trying to explain this difficult Talmudic passage about the ox that gored the cow, and you are someplace else?”
Imagine poor Yankel! His lack of attention is not due to a restless night or an earlier misunderstanding with a friend. Rather, his thoughts are on some “inappropriate” photographs he had seen online the evening before. How his cheeks burn in shame.
The poor student lowers his head. How can he possibly say what caused his distraction? But isn’t Yankel’s distraction essentially the same as Aharon’s? The High Priest was unable to focus on the mizbeach because he was “daydreaming” of the Golden Calf. Could Yankel have seen anything more profane or demeaning on the Internet than the image that filled Aharon’s mind at that moment?
Perhaps the rebbi in this scenario would be wise to recall this midrash and recognize that his talmid’s distraction might be caused by his inability to find peace of mind. He needs help and support, not the inevitable rejection the student can expect.
We cannot escape our imagination and how it creates realities from that which troubles us. Our thoughts lead us to awkward places, just as our troubled thoughts remain in turmoil as a result of the awkward places we visit.
Imagine if, rather than Yankel, Aharon was our modern-day yeshiva bachur. No doubt he would have been expelled from his yeshiva. How dare he dwell on such profanities? “Have you nothing better to think about than the Golden Calf? And in front of the mizbeach no less!”
Aharon could not escape that profanity. It was always there, shadowing his thoughts. And so the darkness remained.
It is the pride of the rebbi that would expel a student for such profanity but it is the experience of the profanity that bears the seed of ultimate resolution and humility.
It was Aharon’s inability to free himself of the image of the Golden Calf even before the holy mizbeach that convinced Moshe he was the person to be the High Priest – lekach nivecharta.