Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Jewish Reconstructionist Communities
Humility vs. Humiliation
This week's Torah portion, Bo, includes the final three plagues brought against Pharaoh and Egypt as well as the first Passover seder meal (observed by the Israelites as the horror of the tenth plague coursed through Egypt). The parashah ends with the Israelites starting their journey out of Egypt after having lived there for 430 years.
The story is familiar. And yet, as with all narratives of the Torah, if one pays attention to the text with one's heart and soul one can find a myriad of truths within it. Just as no two people are exactly alike, neither are two truths.
The truth that I became mindful of while reading the parashah was sparked by Exodus 12:31-32. After the horror of the tenth plague has been visited upon Egypt Moses and Aaron are summoned to Pharaoh's house where Pharaoh says to them, "Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and be gone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!"
In the JPS Torah commentary Nahum Sarna comments that "for [Pharaoh] to seek their blessing is thus the ultimate humbling of the despot." In this context I at first read the word "humbling" as "humiliation." For Pharaoh to ask Moses and Aaron for a blessing is the quintessential humiliation of the tyrant who realizes that he has no true power. And yet there is another way to read this verse that does not equate humility with humiliation.
Living, as we do, in a world where people tout and flaunt their accomplishments in order to show the brilliance of human beings, humility is not evidenced (or appreciated) as much as it should be. It is true that we can be brilliant. According to the Torah we are the only beings created in the image of God. We are the only ones into whom God breathed the breath of life. In kabbalistic (mystical) terms we each carry within us a spark of the Divine light - our soul. We are indeed brilliant. So why be humble? Why not simply admit to our brilliance and revel in our mastery of the universe?