God’s Praise & Critique of Man

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

What is so significant about a steadfast character that Talmud discusses it at length? In fact, Talmud derives the lesson from Torah verses containing the clue word “hu.” 

This is—“hu”—Achashverosh (Esther 1:1). The term hu—“he is”—comes to teach that he remained as he was in his wickedness from beginning to end. Similarly, wherever “he is” appears in this manner, the verse indicates that the individual under discussion remained the same from beginning to end, for example: “This is [hu] Esav” (Genesis 36:43); Esav remained in his wickedness from beginning to end. “This is [hu] Dathan and Aviram” (Numbers 26:9); they remained in their wickedness from beginning to end. “This is [hu] the king Achaz” (II Chronicles 28:22); he remained in his wickedness from beginning to end.

The word hu is also used to recognize sustained righteousness. “Abram, this is [hu] Abraham” (I Chronicles 1:27); this indicates that Abraham didn’t change, as he remained in his righteousness from beginning to end. Similarly, “This is [hu] Aaron and Moses” (Exodus 6:26); they remained in their righteousness from the beginning of their life to the end of their lives. Similarly, with respect to David: “And David, this was [hu] the youngest” (I Samuel 17:14), indicates that he remained in his humility from beginning to end. Just as in his youth, when he was still an ordinary individual, he humbled himself before anyone who was greater than him in Torah, so too, in his kingship, he humbled himself before anyone who was greater than him in wisdom (Talmud Megilla 11a).

God repeatedly used this word “hu” to identify personalities with steadfast characters. What is God’s lesson? And why does God not say Isaac, Jacob, or King Solomon for example, were also good from beginning to end, as they in fact were! Only Abraham, Moses, Aaron and King David are identified for this praise. The answer must lie in the uniqueness of the personalities cited, to the exclusion of all others. And from there, we will appreciate God’s identification of a unique character. 

Talmud is teaching that there are multiple reasons why a person can be steadfast. King Achashverosh had great lusts due to his kingship, what it is meant by “from his beginning to his end”: from the beginning of his kingship until the end he was evil. The lesson: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, from beginning until end. Power has the capacity to blind a person to everything else. Esav was also evil from his beginning until his end, not due to power, but due to base instinctual desires unassociated to rulership. Rashi teaches that the day that Abraham died, then still young, Esav committed idolatry, adultery, and murder. Esav embodied the most extreme attachment to all base instincts. Dathan and Aviram weren’t leaders or lustful, but they too were steadfast in terms of their rebellion to authority. And Achaz cleaved to idolatry, also destroying the Temple’s vessels.

Conversely, Abraham was righteous from his beginning to his end. Unlike his offspring, he was a trailblazer in defense of truth. Aaron and Moses were righteous from their beginnings until their ends in terms of leadership. And King David is a deviation in that he was steadfast in his humility—not righteousness—although he was righteous. But his humility was of a unique quality. 

God teaches us that man is capable of an unwavering attachment to either good or bad character. The drive for power, lust, rebellion and idolatry can be indulged to such a degree, where one is inescapably fastened to their egos, their pleasures and religious deviation. And, conversely, a person can be so attached to truth like Abraham, to leadership like Aaron and Moses, and to humility like King David, where the mind values these ideals over all else.  

We have the capacity to live like animals where we find great physical pleasures that are inescapable and thereby forfeit the afterlife. Or we can choose Torah where we toil in study, and eventually arrive at a burning passion for discovery, for learning new marvelous ideas, that we enjoy a blissful earthly existence, and an afterlife of immeasurable pleasure. 

Man can be captured by his instincts or by his mind his entire life.