“Above Average” Parashat Vayelech-Yom Kippur 5779

Moshe has been condemned to die in the desert. He will never be able to enter the Land of Israel, the only thing he truly desires. Again and again, he prays to Hashem to rescind His decree and again and again, he is rebuffed. Finally, on the last day of his life, Moshe makes Hashem one final offer: Let me cross the Jordan River into Israel, not as a leader, but as a simple Jew. Let my protégé Joshua become the leader while I live out the rest of my life in the shadows as “Moshe Q Public”. According to the Midrash in Devarim Rabbah, Hashem agrees to let Moshe have a go at it. The first thing that Moshe – the new disciple – did was to go to Joshua’s tent to honour his new teacher. You used to come to me, now I’m coming to you. From there, they both went into the Tent of Meeting. The Pillar of Cloud descended and spoke to Joshua. When the Pillar ascended, Moshe asked Joshua, “What Word came to you?” Nu, so what did Hashem have to say? Joshua answered bluntly, “When the Word came to you, did I know what was spoken to you?” Sorry, but you no longer have the required security clearance. The Midrash concludes that at that moment, Moshe began to scream, “Let me die one hundred times rather than suffer this one pang of jealousy that I am now feeling.”

This Midrash is nothing less than astonishing. How could it be that Moshe was jealous of his own student? How can anybody be jealous of his own student? The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin [105b] teaches, “A person is [potentially] jealous of everyone except for his son and his student. Since their success reflects well upon him, he celebrates their success. The fact that one is never jealous of his son is derived… from Moshe’s appointment of Joshua as his successor [Bemidbar 27:23]: ‘[Moshe] laid his hands upon [Joshua] and commanded him’. Hashem commanded Moshe to lay only one hand upon Joshua and instead he laid both hands upon him with all his strength.” Moshe is the example that proves the rule. He wanted Joshua to succeed with all his heart. How could anyone suggest that Moshe would be jealous of Joshua? For that matter, how could anyone suggest that Moshe would be jealous of anybody? The Torah bears witness that [Bemidbar 12:3] “This man, Moshe, was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth”. Moshe was the epitome of humility. He thought nothing of his own personal status. Time and time again he is berated by the people and time and time again he is silent. And yet we are to believe that Moshe was so overcome with jealousy of his own student that he begged Hashem to let him die[1]?

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Gerer Rebbe, writing in “Chiddushei HaRim”, offers a psychological explanation[2]: If I am a Rabbi and my son becomes a Rosh Yeshiva, then I will not be jealous of my son. I will be proud of him. Even if he becomes far more successful than I ever was, I will take it in stride and with great pride. But not if he takes my job! Not if I am forced into retirement and he takes over my congregation or my yeshiva! That is simply too hard to take, even from a disciple and even from a son[3].

Rav Yehuda Zundel Hager, the Savraner Rebbe until 1993[4], offers a fascinating solution. According to Jewish mysticism, every person is placed on earth in order to perform a particular mission. When he has completed his mission, he can leave this world and move on to the next. When Moshe made his offer to Hashem to switch places with Joshua, it was on the last day of his life. Moshe had already successfully completed his mission on earth and his soul was ready to move on. In order for Moshe to extend his stay on planet earth, Hashem had to give him another mission to perform, another battle to fight. The challenge that Hashem gave to Moshe was the challenge of jealousy: would he be jealous of his erstwhile student or would he smile with satisfaction? When Moshe realizes that this these are the battle lines that Hashem has drawn for him, he is shocked to the core. I have worked my entire life to inure myself to jealousy and yet this is what Hashem chooses to test me with? This is all that I have achieved? Am I no different than anyone else? If so, then my entire life has been a failure! “Let me die one hundred times rather than suffer this one pang of jealousy that I am now feeling.”

Humans are born with a cognitive bias that gives them a tendency to see themselves as better than they actually are[5]. This tendency is known as “illusory superiority” and the “above average effect”. A study performed back in 1981 asked participants if they felt that they were better than average drivers. Pay careful attention to the wording: they were not asked if they were good drivers, but, rather, if they were better than most other drivers. Statistically speaking, fifty percent of all drivers are better that the average driver and fifty percent are worse. This is the definition of the word “average”. Even so, in the study, 93% of the participants put themselves in the top 50%. Nearly everyone felt that their driving skills were better than more than half the other drivers. The problem with the above-average effect is that it makes it easy for a person to accept suboptimal results. If I’m already better than most people out there, why should I expend unessential effort? I don’t need to take a drivers refresher course – that’s for the idiots[6] out there who have forgotten how to drive.

The spiritual impact of the above-average effect can be especially toxic. If I already learn more Torah / give more charity / speak less lashon hara (slander) than most of the people I know, why should I expend any energy to do better? Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi offers a way to counter this kind of thinking. Writing in the Tanya, he posits that life is one long battle and if you don’t hear the bullets flying, it’s because you have been hit by one. The solution is to ensure that we are always in the thick of the fight by constantly moving our battle lines out of our comfort zones. How do we do this?

  • Pick a shiur, any shiur, and go to it, each and every week, through rain, sleet, and gloom of night. Even when it is difficult – especially when it is difficult – make the extra effort and go to that shiur.
  • Each year, set your alarm clock two minutes earlier than the previous year. Add those two minutes to the time you spend learning before you go to shul. (If you don’t learn before you go to shul, then start doing that tomorrow. And if you don’t daven in a daily minyan, start doing that tomorrow, too.)
  • Choose one hour a week, and during that hour, do not tell any lashon hara. Turn off your phone, it’s a great help. If you can finish one hour without uttering a word of lashon hara, then add another hour. And then another hour…

The first thing we need to do is to internalize that we are not and we never will be the smartest, the kindest, or the most humble person in the world. If we can take that step, then maybe – if we are willing to sweat – maybe we can become just a little bit smarter, a little bit kinder, and a little bit more humble.

Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, writing in a letter quoted in Techumin [Vol 5, page 286], states simply that there is no contradiction and that Moshe was indeed jealous of Joshua.

[2] Rav Alter’s words here have been paraphrased by Rav Yissocher Frand.

[3] Why was Moshe not jealous when he appointed Joshua as his successor, as demonstrated in the Talmud? Perhaps because this occurred months before the actual changing of the guard. Moshe only became jealous after Joshua actually takes over.

[4] It is interesting to note that the three sources that I found that have anything to say about the topic at hand are all Hassidic.

[5] People tend to accuse the characters in the Torah of suffering from certain spiritual deficiencies. Indeed, I have been taken to task more than once for doing this. Nevertheless, we must always strive to treat people of Moshe Rabbeinu’s stature with the utmost reverence. With this in mind, I suggest that the Midrash is not pointing out Moshe’s weakness, rather, it is pointing out our own weaknesses by using Moshe as an example.

[6] According to the Karliner Rebbe, an “idiot” is a person who drives slower than you while a “maniac” is a person who drives faster than you.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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