I admit it, I love my Lorde…
I mean, my Lord…
I mean…well…

I had better explain to you what I mean before we inadvertently blur the lines between worshipping the Lord, God, and gushing mindlessly over international pop icon, Lorde, the stage name for Ella Yelich-O’Connor. She is the seventeen year old from New Zealand who just won Song Of The Year and Best Pop Solo Performance for her song, “Royals,” at the Grammy Awards.

I am normally five to ten years behind the rest of society on good movies and music. In the case of Lorde, I am actually only about a year behind the pop scene, because I already knew “Royals”, from having heard it many times on the radio. Lorde’s debut album is called Pure Heroine. Her youth notwithstanding, this young lady delivers on the vocals, the minimalist musical accompaniment, and even on her melodramatic lyrics. Her gravelly-smooth voice conveys a sensuality and emotional intensity that far older, more experienced vocal artists take years to develop. According to Wikipedia, Lorde chose her rather pretentious stage name because she is fascinated with royalty and aristocracy. She added the final “E” in order to feminize the masculine sounding, “Lord.” “Royals” is about Lorde’s modest upbringing, her crowd’s rejection of the quest for obscene wealth and celebrity, the obsessive materialism of popular culture, and her own concurrent fantasies of glory.

Here is the song’s refrain:

And we’ll never be royals .
It don’t run in our blood,
That kind of luxe just ain’t for us.
We crave a different kind of buzz.
Let me be your ruler,
You can call me queen Bee
And baby I’ll rule.
Let me live that fantasy.

Lorde is only the latest artist to write about steadfastly clinging to her humble roots while ironically pursuing and achieving great fame and fortune. Hopefully for her sake and ours, she will successfully balance her character qualities of humility with the pursuit of her personal and artistic ambitions, without letting those ambitions degenerate into ugly egomania. Given the nature of human nature and of the entertainment industry, it may be very hard for her to do.

The Jewish tradition views the achievement of this balance as a dynamic human struggle which is critical for the happiness and moral success of individuals and communities. A cursory glance at Jewish wisdom literature may mislead us into thinking that Judaism counsels a self deprecating humility that shuns all ambition and pride. Certainly, many classical Jewish sources warn us about the dangers of human arrogance toward God and our fellow human beings. There are plenty of Jewish texts that demand of us a consistently lowly, humble spirit at all times, but these texts do not tell the whole story. Below are two more nuanced perspectives from within Jewish sources.

The earliest narratives of the book of Genesis draw a picture of human beings as almost limitlessly powerful, precisely because God wants them to be that way, as God’s lesser partners in maintaining the world. God banishes humanity from the Garden of Eden only because Eve and Adam eat from the Tree of Knowledge, thus making themselves too much like God, with all the “awe-full” and awful things this implies. Genesis makes clear that rebellion against God is the worst expression of arrogance, and that it brings evil into the world. Yet just beneath the surface of this teaching is the recognition that without such arrogant overreach, the first people on earth –and we, their descendants – would never have truly left the childhood of Eden to become adults. I come away from these Genesis texts with a feeling that to be human is to live with a constant tension between recognizing the limits of our power and authority before God and expressing our phenomenal powers given to us by God.

The Talmud (Tractate Taanit, 20a-b) tells a story about Rabbi Eleazar ben Shimon whose feelings of overweening pride upon having learned a lot of Torah led him to insult an extremely ugly man who greeted him one day on the road. “I wonder,” he derided him, “If all the people in your hometown are as ugly as you are!” The man replied, “I can’t answer your questions about my ugliness. Why don’t you go criticize the Craftsman Who created me for making me so ugly.” Realizing what he had done, Rabbi Eleazar begged the man to forgive him, which he did only after being asked to do so by the rabbi’s fellow townspeople, and only with the promise that he would seek to avoid such behavior in the future. Eleazar the great Torah scholar missed entirely the point of greatness in Torah study, which is to make us decent human beings. His arrogance and self righteousness caused him to insult another human being as well as the Creator, all of Whose creations are good.

Thus, balancing humility and pride, while avoiding both of their extreme expressions, is an inner struggle whose failure can lead to outer failure and behavioral disaster. I personally understand all too well the struggle to achieve this balance in a healthy and a holy way. I know what it feels like to let ambition get out of control, and how it also feels to lack confidence in the skills and talents given to me by God. Like other impulses, pride, ambition, and the desire for recognition and power have tremendous dual potential. They need to be held in check by a healthy sense of humility, otherwise we wind up using the world as our footstool. Humility needs to be held in check by a healthy sense of pride and ambition, otherwise we get little or nothing done in the world.

Lorde’s argument should not be overstated. Each of us can and should be a royal, as long as we don’t forget that our “royalty” comes from the Lord.