Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

When things don’t go your way

Vaera

What happens when things don’t go the way you’d like them to go? Do you feel bad? Lost? Unmotivated?

Those are natural reactions. People like it when things go their way. Some give it even one more twist, they blame themselves when things go wrong. “If I’d done this or that, this wouldn’t have happened.” “If I wasn’t such an idiot…”

How do you overcome such debilitating attitudes even to the point of feeling empowered and motivated by personal adversity and failure?

Let’s revisit humility and arrogance, as personified by Moses and —lehavdil— Pharaoh, the two central characters in this week’s reading, Vaera [1].

They both reacted to adversity in totally different ways. One with increasing sensitivity and the other with increasing insensitivity. Moses with his humility came out on top and Pharaoh with his arrogance and attitude of invincibility ended up defeated.

At first sight it would seem that arrogance is synonymous with strength and humility with weakness and in a contest between the two, arrogance would win. This is not so. Not at all. Arrogance has nothing to do with high self-esteem and humility has nothing to do with an inferiority complex. To the contrary; arrogance comes from a need to project strength to protect against a sense of weakness and inner emptiness, while humility comes from an inner strength that challenges the individual to use his or her gifts in the best way. The arrogant believe that they are superior, while the humble —who, by the way, can also be proud— feel that what they have is superior. The arrogant feel they owe nothing to anyone; on the contrary, everyone owes everything to them. The humble person feels that since he was gifted with something that others do not have, he has a greater duty to them than they have to him (at least in this regard). 

This difference of perspective also leads to very different personal attitudes. In reference to the righteous —who are generally also humble— King Solomon states] that “The righteous shall fall seven times and rise” [2]. As for the wicked —who are also usually arrogant— we find that “the wicked are full of regrets” [3]. At first glance it sounds very similar, both the righteous and the wicked fall, repent. But in reality there is a big difference. The righteous fall and get up, while the wicked, although seemingly on top of the world, eventually fall, and ultimately —if they are lucky— regret their behavior. 

The wicked, the arrogant, fall apart in the face of a situation that highlights their weakness or defect, because they believe that are or should be perfect and blameless. The righteous, the humble, are not afraid of their defects and weaknesses; they see them as challenges and missions that G-d put in their way. When the humble person encounters a failure or a difficulty, he does not see it as a reason to become disillusioned; to the contrary: it is a clear sign of what he must do from now on. The challenge placed in his path is proof that he has the necessary strength to overcome it. It is not there to break him but to strengthen him.

When Moses encountered adversity, he sought its cause, purpose and meaning, and when he found it, it gave him motivation, joy and purpose, regardless of how difficult it seemed to be. Pharaoh, on the other hand, believed that all he had was the product of his omnipotence. He owed nothing to anyone “Who is G-d? I do not know G-d” [4], he said when Moses came to convey to him what he should do. He could not bear any challenges and limitations. They did not fit into his perspective that he was perfect and omnipotent. 

In the end, the “omnipotent” Pharaoh lost everything. In spite of being a king and having everything, he had nothing, for what man needs most is a purpose and reason for being beyond his immediate and ephemeral personal interests and satisfactions. Moses’ life and legacy, on the other hand, continue to be valid today, 3,292 years after his passing.

So this week’s tool is: don’t be afraid of challenges. It’s G-d’s way of saying “This is what I need you to take care of for me”. The more difficult they are, the more they reaffirms the potential you have. G-d does not create anything in vain, including every single situation that you have to live through. 

  1.  Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
  2.  Proverbs 24:16
  3. Cited in Tanya, Chap. 11. Shevet Musar, Chap. 25.
  4. Exodus 5:2
About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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