It is written in the book of Proverbs, "Pride precedes destruction, and arrogance comes before failure." Perhaps there is no character, more than Odysseus in Homer's epic The Odyssey, who comes to know the meaning of this verse, and the danger of hubris, namely excessive pride, self-confidence, and even defiance toward the gods.
En route home from the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men pass through a variety of lands, including that of Polyphemus, a Cyclops. In an effort to escape from Polyphemus, Odysseus wounds and blinds the Cyclops and then boasts about his true identity. There is only one catch. Polyphemus' father is Poseidon, the god of the sea. Abused by Odysseus' words, Polyphemus cries out to his father, requesting that Odysseus never return home to Ithaca again. And thus begins Odysseus' journey for the next twenty years, an odyssey that keeps him from returning home to his beloved Penelope. Odysseus is the very exemplar of the concept that pride goeth before a fall.
But this theme of hubris appears in other places besides ancient Greek literature. In fact, it is a theme that is deeply relevant within this week's parashah where a terrible tragedy befalls Aaron's sons Nadav and Avihu. Aaron's sons come forward to the altar in the Tent of Meeting and offer what the Torah renders as "false fire." And for presenting a seemingly unacceptable sacrifice, Nadav and Avihu were consumed by the flames of the altar and died.
What happens in this week's Torah portion is beyond words and beyond explanation. There are no words to explain the untimely, tragic death in this week's Torah portion, nor any such tragedy. Too many of us know such a situation in our world today, and even in our own lives. Sometimes, having no words, knowing what not to say, remaining silent and present, is far more important than using too many words, or for that matter, the wrong words. But maybe there is a space for discussing the actions of Nadav and Avihu, separate from discussing the outcome, and that the actions or behaviors, are to be explained and learned from as actions and behaviors, and not as the specific reason for their demise.
The rabbis of the Midrash offer a variety of explanations. They claim that Nadav and Avihu may have prepared their sacrifice incorrectly, they were intoxicated, or that they failed to wash themselves before entering the Tent of Meeting. But one explanation that stands out above all others. The rabbis believe Nadav and Avihu to have been arrogant in their comportment. One Midrash in particular teaches that when God invited Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel on top of Mount Sinai,we are taught that Moses and Aaron went first, Nadav and Avihu walked behind them and Nadav and Avihu were saying, "When will these two old men die and we assume authority over the community?" This particular Midrash is a creative interpretation to say the least, but one which bespeaks the level of arrogance that the rabbis believed Nadav and Avihu to possess.
Rabbi Aryeh ben David takes the discussion further when he explains, "Nadav and Avihu were punished for conducting themselves beyond the letter of the law" and he teaches, according to the Talmud, "They instructed rulings of law while in the presence of Moses, their teacher." Such a behavior, imposing and deciding upon halakhah, a Jewish legal ruling, while in the presence of one's teacher, is considered a no-go zone.
Ben David comments about the need for us to be aware of acts of hubris, "of exaggerated or false religious devotion." He adds:
The rabbis...created a legal category, referred to in Hebrew as yuhara (literally: making a mountain of oneself), to prohibit such displays of religiosity. The rabbis were aware that spiritual devotion could be motivated by a desire for attention, behavior intended to create the impression of honor and righteousness. Any religious behavior that is not commensurate with one's recognized conduct and position within the community is suspect of being self-serving and possibly pompous.
According to an article in The Jewish Chronicle, the meaning of the Aramaic word yuharais that of a "luminous gem." An interpretation of the book of Esther shows King Ahasuerus showing the crowds his yuharin. The article explains, metaphorically, that the behavior is one of showiness and quotes the Talmudic warning, "Any wise person who is mityaher(who takes on airs), his wisdom will leave him."Ben David continues with a final word, "This category of yuharais intended to serve as a moral check for the Jewish society, impelling each individual to build an integrated life of spirituality, harmonious with his or her community. One might playfully suggest here the Australian concept that originates in ancient literature known as "tall poppy syndrome," and that tall poppies, are the first to be cut down.
Whether we call it hubris, or yuhara, or "tall poppy syndrome" there is something to be said for the importance of humility in today's world. Quoting three different studies, New York Times columnist David Brooks writes in his remarkable book, The Road to Character:
Over the past few decades there has been a sharp rise in the usage of individualist words and phrases like “self” and “personalized,” “I come first” and “I can do it myself,” and a sharp decline in community words like “community,” “share,” “united,” and “common good.” The use of words having to do with economics and business has increased, while the language of morality and character building is in decline. Usage of words like “character,” “conscience,” and “virtue” all declined over the course of the twentieth century. Usage of the word “bravery” has declined by 66 percent over the course of the twentieth century. “Gratitude” is down 49 percent. “Humbleness” is down 52 percent and “kindness” is down 56 percent.
We see these behaviors in our world, in the news, we hear about them from our children and our grandchildren. Our obligation as Jews is, in covenant with God, to repair the world. So this Shabbat, we pause to think about the meaning behind Nadav and Avihu's actions, not the tragic outcome, just the actions. And in light of our world, we ask ourselves what the inverse of their behaviors might also mean? What does it mean to listen to and be grateful for our teachers in life? What does it mean to be thankful for our blessings? What does it mean to act with humility, reverence, awe, and respect? What might it mean to follow instead of lead, to get behind a cause, instead of being out in front? Sometimes, it's not about needing to climb to the top of the mountain, but about standing at the base, in the presence of others, and just simply admiring the majesty.
Leviticus Rabbah 20.
Leviticus Rabbah 20:10.
Aryeh ben David, Around the Shabbat Table: A Guide to Fulfilling and Meaningful Shabbat Table Conversations, pp. 191-3. Also Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 63a, per the author.
Ben David, as above.
David Brooks, The Road to Character, Kindle Locations 4942-4950. Quoting Jean M. Twenge, Keith Campbell, and Brittany Gentile, "Increases in Individualistic Words and Phrases in American Books, 1960-2008," David Brooks "What our Words Tell Us," New York Times, May 20, 2013, and Pelin Kesebir and Selin Kesebir, "The Cultural Salience of Moral Character and Virtue Declined in Twentieth Century America," Journal of Positive Psychology, 2012.