Of Grasshoppers and Jewish Pride

Just as there were six million victims, so were there at least six million stories.

One of those stories seems to have occurred many times, because I’ve heard it told by quite a few survivors. It is the story of two or more Jews, witnessing the sadistic and murderous scenes around them, but momentarily spared from being victims themselves.

In the midst of that horror, one Jew turns to the other and says, “Yankel, you are always urging us to be thankful to God for what we have. What do we have to thank Him for now? Our brothers and sisters and children are being tortured and butchered in front of our eyes, and, in all likelihood, these Nazis will come after us next!”

To which Yankel replies, “We can be thankful that we are Jews and not Nazis. Not only can we be thankful, but we can be proud. We can be proud that we are Jews and have retained our humanity, and not become the beasts that these Nazis have become. We can be proud that we can still claim to have been created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God. Our tormentors have forever relinquished that claim.”

There are numerous other stories told with similar motifs, indicating that Jews were able to retain their Jewish pride even in the unspeakably horrible conditions of the Holocaust.

Thankfully, Jewish pride has also been amply manifested in much happier circumstances. The encouraging cheers which echoed across the world as Jews from behind the Iron Curtain heroically struggled for their freedom, and the celebratory cheers which resounded when they finally achieved that freedom, expressed that pride dramatically. “Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish nation lives,” were the words chosen to express that pride.

Jewish pride is sometimes even evidenced in American culture, such as in the boasting one hears about the Hank Greenbergs and Sandy Koufaxes whose Jewish identities were apparent even to the baseball fans of yesteryear.

In more significant areas of human accomplishment, have we not all occasionally gloated over the disproportionably numerous Jewish Nobel Prize winners in science and literature? Do not the lifesaving medical discoveries of generations of Jewish physicians stir Jewish pride in our hearts?

Most important, of course, are the contributions that Jewish leaders have made, from the times of Abraham to this very day, to human religious development and to the advancement of ethics and morality for all mankind.

In is sad, therefore, and some would say tragic, that Jewish pride seems to be on the decline in recent times. The consequences of such a decline are poignantly illustrated in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41).

We read this week of the adventures, better misadventures, of the spies. They spent forty days scouting out the Promised Land and discovered much that was very good. But in their report back to “Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community,” they chose to emphasize that “the people who inhabit the country are powerful and the cities are fortified and very large.”

When Caleb, the very embodiment of Jewish pride, confidently assured the people that “we shall surely overcome it,” they shouted words of rebuttal, culminating in this assertion: “…we saw giants there, and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33). Grasshoppers! No more, no less.

An individual with such a puny self image is doomed to a life of mediocrity, if not failure and frustration. A nation which perceives itself as grasshoppers, which lacks proper pride in itself, has already fallen victim to God’s curse: “And I will break your proud glory…” (Leviticus 26:19) Such a nation cannot live up to its mission.

There are those who would object and insist that the Almighty wants us to be humble and that pride is a negative value. To those, we must object that just as there is a “false pride,” which is really nothing but arrogance, there is also “false humility,” which leads one to shirk responsibility and to eschew greatness.

I have at least once before referred in this column to some of my classmates in high school and college and yeshiva who were voted “most likely to succeed” but who by no means succeeded. Many of them suffered from this very “false humility,” and it resulted in their failure to use the talents and skills with which they were blessed in a properly prideful manner. That was their loss, and a loss to the world.

The Jewish people, as a nation, can easily fall prey to this “false humility.” As a nation, despite our faults and shortcomings, we have much to be proud of. We have much to teach the world spiritually because of our rich biblical and rabbinic heritage. And we continue to contribute to mankind’s material welfare in countless ways.

We would do well to heed the pithy counsel of an early 20th century Chassidic sage, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch, who said, “Man must be proud, but he must grow higher and higher, and not wider and wider.” What he meant to say is that if we use our pride to grow wider, we are bound to infringe upon another person’s space. That is selfish arrogance, and not proper pride.

But if our pride motivates us not to grow wider, but to grow ever higher and higher, we displace no one. Instead, we draw closer to the Almighty and do what He demands of us.

Jewish pride takes us higher and higher. Am Yisrael Chai.