Ekev: What Sunk the Titanic?

Real picture of the titanic colorized historydaily.org

“If Humility Is So Important, Why Are Leaders So Arrogant?”, asked the author of an article in the Harvard Business Review. Most people would agree that humility is a virtue, yet many people see humility as the obstacle to success, entrepreneurship, leadership, and courage. Furthermore, humility is seen as virtuous on an individual level, most people would not see humility as a virtue on the national level. National pride is a core value across cultures, does that exclude national humility.

This week’s Parsha, as the Jews are nearing the promised land, Moses gathers them and forewarns them(Deuteronomy 8):

“lest you eat and be sated, and build good houses and dwell therein, and your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold increase, and all that you have increases, and your heart grows haughty, and you forget the Lord, your God, Who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, and you will say to yourself, “My strength and the might of my hand that has accumulated this wealth for me.” But you must remember the Lord your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth, in order to establish His covenant which He swore to your forefathers, as it is this day.”

Moses worries the Jews will forget what brought them the prosperity and security they have achieved. He is worried they will give themselves all the credit. This concern is not limited to the individual, it is a national concern as well. He makes sure to tell the Jews what the consequences of such thinking may be:

“And it will be, if you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods, and worship them, and prostrate yourself before them, I bear witness against you this day, that you will surely perish.”

This arrogance may not necessarily take the form of material arrogance. It is not uncommon for religious communities to indulge in moral narcissism, and so Moses makes sure to cover all options.

“Do not say to yourself, when the Lord, your God, has repelled them from before you, saying, “Because of my righteousness, the Lord has brought me to possess this land,” and [that] because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord drives them out from before you. Not because of your righteousness or because of the honesty of your heart, do you come to possess their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God drives them out from before you, and in order to establish the matter that the Lord swore to your forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Deuteronomy, 9)

The danger of arrogance is not strictly material and gruesome, it can be spiritual as well. This is very much what we find around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. Jews thought there was no way the Temple can be destroyed. They thought of themselves as morally superior to the Romans, and then to one another. Religious radicalism and perceived superiority led to infighting and ultimately the destruction of the land of Israel.

We are thus cautioned to show humility both in our material accomplishments, and spiritual perceptions as well. We must recognize what we have did not come to us on our own merit, we must accept it all as a gift from God, with the merit of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

But wait. Wouldn’t this impede our ability to succeed, prosper, and be strong? No one would like to be defended by a soldier who is shy and looking at the ground, nor would we invest with someone who won’t speak up at a board meeting. In a Forbes article titled: “The Price Of Arrogance”  Steve Forbes and John Prevas, explain this using the example of Alexander the great, the greatest conqueror of the ancient world, someone who once said:” “I set no limits to what a man of ability can accomplish.” Forbes and Prevas assess how well Alexander would have done as the CEO of a company write: “There is no question that, whether in the corporate or in the political realm, Alexander would be the boss, setting the direction and the pace. Initially investors or voters would love him. But inevitably, overextending himself with too much debt and too many expensive acquisitions, driven by an ego that compelled him to conquer everything in sight, and engaging in an excessive lifestyle of partying hard and drinking too much, he would become an expensive embarrassment and have to be pushed out of the corporate jet with a multi-million-dollar parachute to soften his landing. Our corporate Alexander would probably enter rehab for a month or two and on discharge get hired by an equity fund to start all over again.”

Arrogance is like an athlete on steroids. It can lead to great successes in the short term, but it is unsustainable in the long term. Moses knows the Israelites will be successful as they enter the land of Israel, what is worried about is how long that success will last. Moses wants to make sure that prosperity and success to not result in arrogance and decay, and so he warns the Jews—as a people—to make sure they do not succumb to haughtiness.

This danger of arrogance—and benefits of humility—are also true on an individual level. Silverman, Aarti Shyamsunder of Kronos, Inc. and Russell Johnson of the University of South Florida studied the impact of arrogance on employees. “ The results? Among other things, the more arrogant you are, the more self-centered and the less agreeable you’re likely to be.”


Psychologist Pelin Kesebir from the Univesity of  Colorado highlights several individual benefits of humility such as having better relationships, better self-control, leadership skills, better grades and work performance, and more.

One of the most obvious examples that come to mind is the Titanic. When the Titanic set sail in 1912 confidence was so hight, that the ship did not have rescue boats. Arrogance and overconfidence made sure that the watchmen did not invest enough energy in looking out for potential obstacles, and prevented them from radioing for help sooner. Another factor in the drowning was storing the ship’s binoculars in a far off area. We mourn those results to this day. Yes, arrogance kills.

As Western democracies, and countries around the world, struggle to stabilize themselves, and norms and societies seem to crack in a way we have not seen in the recent past, as communities’ and families’ stability seem to shake, let us remind ourselves the lesson of humility. Let us remember the blessings of humility, its ability to give longevity to our achievements, sustainability to our lives, and dignity to our community so that we can be blessed from the words of Isaiah read in the Haftorah: “For the Lord shall console Zion, He shall console all its ruins, and He shall make its desert like a paradise and its wasteland like the garden of the Lord; joy and happiness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and a voice of song.”(Isaiah 51)

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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