Justified Pride

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Reader: How do you reconcile Jeremiah’s words with the mishnah from Avos, both cited below?

Thus said the Lord: “Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom; let not the strong man glory in his strength; let not the rich man glory in his riches. For only in this should the one who praises, praise himself: be understanding (wise) and know Me for I am God who performs kindness, justice and charity in the Earth. For in these do I desire,” so says God (Jer. 9:22,23).  

If you have learned much, do  not ascribe greatness to yourself, for this is the reason you were created (Avos 2:8).

—Alex Kahgan, NY

Rabbi: You propose a contradiction: Jeremiah praises understanding God, while Avos says one must not praise himself for learning much Torah. Thus, is wisdom to be praised, or not?

 Jeremiah addresses which “quality” one should praise. One must not value mere ethical wisdom, mere strength or mere wealth...each one when divorced from a life following God. Rather, the true value is knowledge of God, and then following His kindness, justice and charity. Malbim (Ibid) identifies what man should in fact pride himself in regarding these 3 matters: expressing wisdom of God and His will through 1) using one’s wisdom to foster kindness, 2) using one’s strength to support justice, and 3) using one’s wealth to support tzedaka. Man cannot pride himself on his actions unless they align with God’s will. 

Avos addresses a different issue, not which quality is of value, but whether “quantity” of knowledge is a value. One must not pride himself for learning much. Quantity is an ego issue, as it converts Torah into an “accomplishment,” which is not learning lishma: learning for the beauty of the ideas alone. Torah must not be viewed as accomplishment, as Rabbi Chait taught, for then it is worthless. By rendering learning into an ego satisfaction of accomplishment, one forfeits learning for the sake of the ideas, seeking ego instead. But that’s not of any value.  

In terms of identifying what is valuable, one should feel good that he selects a life of wisdom. There’s a prayer said in the morning by those who follow a Torah life, where they praise that life, and ridicule those who forgo it and whose lives are an “empty well.”  When completing a tractate, we read the Hadran:

For we arise early, and they arise early; we arise for words of Torah, and they arise for words of emptiness. We work, and they work; we work and receive a reward, and they work and do not receive a reward. We run, and they run; we run towards eternal life, and they run to a pit of desolation.

Therefore, there is no contradiction. Jeremiah teaches that wisdom which aligns with God’s Torah is of great value; pride in this is justified. “Understand and know Me” is God’s command that man lives optimally. But Avos addresses, and ridicules a different matter: studying Torah for the sake of accomplishment. Torah’s goal is to offer man an appreciation of God’s wisdom. But when man uses Torah for ego motives, he misses the mark: man is the focus, not God. When we use our minds to delve into Torah, to creatively think and analyze, we then leave egoistical matters of amassing knowledge, and we focus solely on God’s wisdom. We are not focussing on the self at all.

Furthermore, Avos says that one should not take pride in learning much, since “this is what you are created to do.” Meaning, as God is the designer of the human being, He is ultimately the reason why man can learn much. As we did not create our human design, we cannot take credit for our capacity to amass much knowledge. Thus, mechanical activity is not praiseworthy. Accomplishment through amassing facts is mere mechanical activity, like breathing; it’s part if our innate design, and not a new perfection to our souls. But when we arrive at new ideas through thought and creativity of our minds, this is in fact a new perfection to our souls, and is praiseworthy.

But Avos 2:8 does not end after ridiculing one’s pride for amassing learning. It continues to identify whom we should praise:

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai used to say: “If all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus on the other scale, he would outweigh them all. For he was like a plastered well, which never looses a drop (of his Torah studies).” Abba Shaul said in his name: “If all the sages of Israel were on one scale of the balance, and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus also with them, and Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach was on the other scale, he would outweigh them all, for the latter was like a wellspring aways growing in its force (he continually brought forth new Torah insights).” 

These rabbis disputed who was of greater value: Is it the one who never forgot his Torah, or the one who always generated new Torah insights? Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’ value of never forgetting ensures the next generation receives Torah fully intact. This view held the greatest man was he who secured Torah transmission. But the second view argued that this is not the highest objective. For even if all wise men were on a scale, along with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus who retained all his knowledge, Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach’s creativity as a wellspring of ideas would outweigh them all. This second view values something other than securing Torah transmission: it values Torah’s beauty, love of God. For this view held the only purpose in securing Torah transmission, is if it arrives at people loving God’s wisdom, achieved only when Torah’s beauty is shared and grows due to a creative mind like Rabbi Eleazar ben Arach.