When we are young life seems to be full of potential. We are full of questions and believe that adults have the answers. As we become teenagers and young adults we think that all the answers lie within ourselves. But as we get older still we are meant to outgrow that stage and recognize that not only do we not have the answers, no one really does. Our ability to understand, perceive and know is just far too limited. Realizing this is a most humbling experience.
The problem is that we as humans live most of our life in denial of our own limitations. This arrogance and stupidity causes us to make many major and often catastrophic miscalculations.
The Torah, as a guide for our lives, warns us about this in an illustrative manner. The story of Korah and his argument against Moses is an example of this. Korah thought that he, rather than Moses’ brother Aaron, should have been chosen for the position of High Priest. This was a major miscalculation on his part and one which was caused by arrogance.
According to the great Hassidic masters the source of this arrogance is a lack of ability to clearly see one’s own motivations. Often people will say that a financial dispute has nothing to do with the money, “It’s the principle that I am concerned about,” they claim. An outsider with the ability to be objective will realize that the dispute is in fact about the money but the individual themselves are often blind to this.
Biblical Korah felt that he had a legitimate claim to become the High Priest. He even felt a sense or righteous and religious indignation—why is Moses giving the top job to his brother Aaron? Wasn’t there someone else worthy besides for the boss’s brother? But what Korah must have missed was that his righteous war was really a manifestation of his ego and it had nothing to do with religion or spirituality. The entire exercise ended up in a self destructive manner.
Ego prevails, people suffer
This is what happens all around us. Ego takes over and then everyone suffers. In the case of the Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill, the public that is addicted to oil is blaming a company that works hard to help them feed that addiction. “Big oil is evil,” is the cry that is heard over and over again. Barack Obama continues the charade blaming the oil companies and summoning BP’s CEO to the White House like he is a naughty school boy.
Yes, no doubt BP should have been more careful and ego allowed them to overestimate their own abilities and ignore their limitations. But the reaction of the general public is just as ego driven—the average person refuses to recognize their own culpability. This is typical human behavior: our egos endeavor to ensure that we as individuals are free of blame—it is always someone else’s fault.
Human folly is another affliction of the ego. The Iranian regime is so certain that they have God on their side and that they are fighting a divinely ordained religious struggle that they are willing to ignore the international community and continue their march towards becoming a nuclear nation. That this will bring ruin upon themselves and their country does not come into the equation.
The Proverbs say that, “Before destruction comes pride, and before stumbling comes a haughty spirit” (16:18). This has been true throughout history—it was true for Korah in the Bible, it was true for BP and it will be true for Iran. We collectively and individually need to avoid this type of prideful arrogance like the plaque. We need to become truly aware of our limits and realize the infinitesimally small amount of knowledge and power we really have compared to what truly exists. If we all internalized this truth the world and humanity would be much better off.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts