October 27, 2020 |

Great Expectations

A foolish story I once heard imagines two deceased souls who meet at the entrance to the next world. As they stand in line to be admitted (sadly, it seems, even the afterlife has bouncers and security) they discuss their lives on earth. One asks the other: "What is the bravest thing you have ever done?" The first soul says that when he was a young boy he jumped off a cliff and landed without injury in a tree. Unimpressed, the other soul responds: "I marched out from my dilapidated house, across my soggy fields, to the king's palace, through his gardens into his antechamber, right past his bodyguards, into his throne room, right up to his throne, looked him in the eye and spat in his beard!" "Oh, wow, when did that happen?" "About 3 or 4 minutes ago!"

We have a Hebrew word for that kind of confidence, or brazenness: azut metzach, which literally means "hard-headed." It is different than ga'ava, which is egotism, or yozma, which is ambition. And it is also different than the word for self-confidence: bitachon atzmi. Now, self-confidence is a very important part of being Jewish, but it must always be balanced so that it does not become pride or vainglory or overconfidence. A person must be able to say simultaneously "the whole world was created just for me!" and "I am nothing but dust and ashes." If Hashem created this whole world for me, an amazing and unique human being, I must be very important. But, compared to Hashem, I recognize my limitations; I am nothing. Rabbi Joseph B Soloveichik writes in his essay "Ideas on Prayer" that this is the confusing dialectical reality of prayer. First, I stand with confidence before Hashem as a majestic being and believe that He will deign to hear my prayers, but then I shrink back in fear and humility because, after all, who am I to speak before God?

Great expectations are the fuel on which all progress is made. Someone has to believe in themselves for new things to happen. "Everyone else says it can't be done. But I know that I can do it!" It was a truly confident individual who first launched themselves into zero-g in a fighter jet to launch the era of space travel. It was a truly confident individual who imagined that you could drill for oil (only in 1859!) and a truly confident person who decided to build a social network of 550 million people. If they and many others like them never believed in themselves and their capabilities, we'd still be, so to speak, living in caves.

There are two problems here, though. One is that Hitler and Stalin were confident too. The erstwhile surgeons who operated on patients without anesthesia and with used bandages were quite confident of themselves too. When confidence is left unfettered, the search for progress and idealism eventually turns to tyranny and corruption. This is, by the way, the context of the Wikileaks debate. The second is the poor, humble and meek individuals. What about those who don't want to overturn society's conventional wisdom, who want to play with the rules as they are right now? What about people with great ideas but not enough confidence to make their dreams come true? Are the rest of us non-gunslingers doomed?

Navigating this tension is one of the many roles of a teacher and one of the things that makes being a teacher a truly great experience. It is not that "those who can, do, those who can't, teach" (in the cynical words of H.L. Mencken), but that those who are able to help others to do, teach. A great teacher can moderate a brilliant pioneer into a positive force rather than a megalomaniac. A great teacher can take a person with great potential, but without "great expectations" and help them become a great reality. A great teacher can take Luke Skywalker and help him become a Jedi Knight without becoming Darth Vader's heir.

Teaches not only guide and challeneg their students, but have expectations and beliefs that their students can be guided and taught. Sometimes, this is the first thing a teacher has to convey: that they expect things from their students and that they are sure the students can deliver. High expectations and challenges are the stuff of greatness. Doug Lemov, in "Teach Like A Champion" notes, as introduction to his book, that "One consistent finding of academic research is that high expectations are the most reliable driver of high student achievement, even in students who do not have a history of successful achievement." In other words, you get what you expect. Expectations drive achievement.

When Hashem comes to Avraham and tells him to leave his land, his birthplace and his father's house, He takes an untested young man and gives him the opportunity to change the world. In each of the Ten Tests of Avraham (it's not just Hercules that had ten labors) Hashem guides Avraham to greatness. Each test Avraham passes makes him better. Says the midrash: when you beat flax, it becomes shinier, better. God only tests the righteous; they are the ones from whom He expects greatness. Avraham himself understands the balance between great self-expectation and humility. When he negotiates with God not to destroy the city of S'dom, he prefaces his remarks with humility: "I am but dust and ashes", but his humility does not prevent him from challenging Hashem. He is confident in his actions, but knows his place in the world. He has the confidence of doing Hashem's work without the illusion that he IS God, which was the downfall of so many great men.

In this week's sidra (Torah portion), we meet young Moshe, whose great expectations are brought upon him (like Pip's in Dickens) from a most unlikely source. He is plucked as an infant from the river and certain death by Pharaoh's daughter. He rises to be an Egyptian aristocrat, but finds that that arrogant life is not appropriate for him. Driven from the kingdom by a Pharaoh scorned, he takes up a new life as a remote shepherd, humble and alone. It is here that he meets Hashem in the burning bush. The bush itself proclaims, perhaps, that a holy and enduring flame - passionate, zealous and confident -- can burn even within a humble bush. A proud and capable spirit can burn within the lowly shepherd.

Hashem tells him that He has heard the cries of the Jewish people and wants Moshe to go back to Egypt to save them. To which Moshe responds: "Who am I to go to Pharaoh? And to take the children of Israel out of Egypt?" (Ex. 3:11) Who am I but a lowly shepherd, a nobody? I could not even enter the throne-room of Pharaoh, let alone spit in his beard and live to tell the tale? And even if I did get in and make my case, what powers of persuasion would I have to convince the mighty Pharoh to turn loose his endless supply of free labor, his Jewish scapegoats and slaves? I would have to be crazy to go and he would have to be crazy to listen to me! (Rashbam).Rashi, alternativeley, voices the view that he was not only skeptical that he could go to Pharoh, but that the Jewish people were worthy of being redeemed? Who are they but a sitff-necked, back-sliding, hard-scrabble bunch of slaves?

Hashem responds to Moshe: "For I will be with you and this is the sign that I have sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt you shall serve God on this mountain." (Ex 3:12) The first message of Hashem to Moshe is: You CAN do this. And you will. His second message is that none of us are alone in this world. Hashem is with us. The majesty and grandeur of being a human being is that we are God's proxies, His "arms and legs" in this world. We act not only for ourselves, but for a greater purpose. When Hashem took the Jewish people out of Egypt - which most of them could not imagine would ever happen to them - He did not leave them in the desert, but brought them to Mount Sinai and gave them the Torah, the tool by which the meek and lowly Jews have made a greater mark on the world than any other people in history. It is very empowering to know that we act not only for oursleevs but for a greater purpose.

We are God's people. We are Jews with great expectations.When the opportunity presents to choose to believe in ourselves, have the responsibility to act on it. In the famous triple adage of Hillel: "If I am not for me, who will be? " We cannot delegate or wait for others to engage our capabilities. "But once I am for myself, what am I?" Being 'for' ourselves is not narcissism or self-indulgence; we believe in ourselves because we contribute to more than ourselves. So we temper our confidence with humility. "And if not now, when?" Moshe definitely wasn't ready to accept the burden presented to him at the burning bush. But it was the right time anyway. And it couldn't wait for another day. The past is gone, like the blink of an eye. The future awaits. Now is the only time that we have. Shabbat shalom!


Rabbi Avi Heller

Joined: July 27, 2007

Originally from Denver CO, Rav Avi received a BA from BU and Rabbinic ordination and an MA in Bible from YU. Before joining MJE, he was Director of Jewish Education at BU Hillel, co-directed the BU Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus and was an Associate University Chaplain. He has been the...

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