(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...eino machazik tovah l'atzmo, not claiming credit for oneself...
(Leviticus 16:6) ...v'khipeir ba'ado uv'ad beito...; ...[Aaron] shall atone on his own behalf and on behalf of his household...
Whenever this Torah portion comes around, Passover is fresh in our minds. Either the seder is imminent or just a short time previous. And that means that someone has pointed out the fact that Moses is never mentioned in the Haggadah in the story of the redemption from Egypt. (Moses is mentioned once in traditional haggadot, but in an almost peripheral comment.) And, of course, someone else wants to know how a central figure like Moses could be excluded from the popular record of a monumental achievement of his life!
Taking credit for oneself is an American pastime. Politicians name laws after themselves, athletes name shoes after themselves, actresses name perfumes after themselves and fashion designers put their names on every article of clothing they sell. The message is clear: I create this; when you lay claim to my creation, I lay claim to you!
By contrast, the midrashic tradition makes a great deal of the modesty of Moses. The Torah itself calls Moses the most humble of men, and the notion of his selflessness is expanded greatly in lore and legend. (It is ironic when a man becomes famous for his modesty!)
The model of humility has become a hallmark of our scholarly tradition. The greatest of our rabbis are known in one of two ways: either they are called by geography or acronyms that identify their parentage, or they become know by the titles of their greatest works. We know the Vilna Gaon, Rashi, Rambam, Ibn Ezra and others who identified themselves by the circumstances from which they emerged. And we know other sages like the Tur, the Chafetz Chayyim and the Shelah (=sh'nei luchot habrit) whose Torah defines their identity. By eschewing personal credit for their work, these scholars have acquired Torah and are content, like Moses, for their egos to disappear into the greater narrative of our people.
But there is a difference between claiming personal credit and taking personal responsibility. The Yom Kippur ritual that is the subject of this week's Torah verse illustrates the contrast. Yom Kippur comes six months after Pesach – symbolically the opposite end of the year. The sacrificial ritual of atonement is described in great detail in the Torah, and though we no longer perform it since the destruction of the Temple, we recount it diligently in the Avodah service usually recited during the afternoon of Yom Kippur.
Kept in a state of ritual purity, Aaron the High Priest is charged with the responsibility of atoning for the transgressions and shortcomings of the entire house of Israel. The forgiveness of the most serious violations of divine law falls to Aaron, though he likely committed none of them. Yet, before he pleads for the arrogant, impure and belligerent among the people, he offers an atonement sacrifice "on his own behalf and on behalf of his household." Before he can appeal for compassion on the sinners over whom he has no control, he takes responsibility for comparatively minor sins that he and his family – over whom he has control – have committed.
If claiming personal credit is one American pastime, avoiding responsibility for personal shortcomings is another. The same politicians, athletes, entertainers and fashion designers whose names appear on their products are quick to explain, obscure, avoid and distract (or, as we summarize, "spin") their mistakes and misbehaviors when confronted with them. Sexual misconduct in the Oval Office or misrepresentation of enemy military capability, ingestion of performance-enhancing drugs, abuse of co-workers or children and exploitation of low-paid laborers have sullied the rich and/or famous in recent memory. Almost to a person, they have sought "plausible deniability."
Sometimes rabbis like to affirm that Judaism is inherently counter-cultural. From the days of Abraham, when monotheism challenged the pagan pantheon of the Middle East, these rabbis claim that our people has always tried to speak truth to power and test accepted standards. Perhaps they are right, or perhaps they overstate our public mission. But privately, they are right on the money. Our personal achievements are almost never ours alone; their goodness should speak its own praise, leaving ego aside. Our shortcomings, on the other hand, offer us an opportunity to take responsibility for ourselves. Knowing the difference changes self-indulgence to wisdom.
How can you be someone who practices eino machazik tovah l'atzmo? Before taking credit for an accomplishment – a positive job review, a good grade, an achievement on the sports field, even a delicious meal – consider all of the others whose contributions were necessary to enable you to succeed. Co-workers and mentors, teachers and study partners, coaches and teammates and, in the case of food, everyone from farmer to truck driver to supermarket cashier to utensil manufacturer all were necessary to your triumph. Accustoming yourself to putting success in that context will help you understand the interdependence of all of life and its common source in God. And that, after all, is the essential message of Torah.
*Next shabbat is Pesach. The next installment (#28-Kedoshim, ahuv) will appear in time for May 7.