In My Own Write: Shedding crumbs and conceit

Modesty is the most beautiful virtue of them all.

judy montagu 88 (photo credit: )
judy montagu 88
(photo credit: )
Most of the rabbinical homilies spoke of hametz (leavening) as symbolizing pride... the sin of being puffed-up - Shlomo Riskin Puffed-up. It's a wonderful description - sort of onomatopoeic, if you decide to go for the full effect and blow out your cheeks as you say it. It conjures up a whole gamut of images: of plump rolls and air-filled croissants and souffles rising in the oven; of blowfish (puffer fish), which swell to twice their size when they feel they're under threat; and of those folks - we can all name a few - who appear to be permanently inflated with a sense of their own importance. You can often see it by the way they hold themselves - heads thrown back so that they always seem to be looking down their noses at you, shoulders squared and unyielding, chests protruding and, well, puffed-up. But let's not delude ourselves here. It seems that we human beings, individually and as a collective, were fashioned with an inbuilt risk of "puffed-upness" of one kind or another, a kind of ain't-I-great?-ism that can pop up just when we think we're at our most contained. I'm reminded of the story about the Torah sage who lived on such an elevated spiritual plane that his every waking moment was spent either bent over the holy books or doing good deeds. One day his disciples found him in tears and asked what ailed him. He was heartbroken, he answered them, because he couldn't get the better of his feelings of pride and vanity. This is, of course, an extreme case - a life lived on such a high madrega of virtue that few of us would even aspire to it. And then, way over at the opposite extreme of self-regard, you get Uriah ("I'm ever so 'umble") Heep. Immortalized by Charles Dickens in David Copperfield, he feigns humility but actually encapsulates an inverted form of superiority, and a manipulative one. Dickens, with his keen understanding of human foible, recognized pride for what it is: an inseparable part of the human psyche - and a problematic one. Peel away the writer's famous skill at parody, and you've probably met one or two people not unlike the unforgettable Mr. Heep. THAT exacting Torah sage notwithstanding, pride is allowed to exist without prejudice. No one ever suggested that a degree of satisfaction with one's achievements is illegitimate; and one may debate the point at which this natural and even desirable sense of gratification spills over into the arrogance that's so easy to mock. But when Pessah comes around and we need to make sense of the meticulous cleaning and scrubbing required; of our backbreaking stretching and bending and twisting as we create upheaval in our homes - all in the aim of banishing every last crumb of leaven that may lurk there - the explanation that speaks to me is the one that says: All this hard labor reflects the parallel, arduous chore of ridding our inner selves of the puffy "leaven" of excess pride. It has been told thee, O man, what is good... only to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God - Micah 6:8 IF I had to name a single human attribute that appeals to me more than any other, I'd have to say modesty - perhaps because I feel that we Jews, with our acknowledged and manifold gifts and talents, are possibly more prone than others to falling into the trap of conceit and ostentation. Modesty - in men or women, old or young, learned or simple - has a unique and unmistakable beauty to it, a kind of innate dignity that I find deeply affecting. In stark contrast to the show-off personality, whose manner and even bearing proclaim: "Look at me, see how terrific I am," the modest one exudes a quiet yet compelling self-confidence that doesn't feel the need to proclaim anything. And when modesty dwells side by side with a measure of greatness, the memory of having known such a person remains with you for life, affording a refreshing and renewable pleasure. THE individual who comes into my mind is Haim Sokolik, whose acquaintance I made in the first half of the '70s at Beit Milman, the immigrants hostel in Ramat Aviv where we both lived following our aliya; mine from London, his from Moscow. I was still unemployed; he was a theoretical physicist who had become a protege of former science minister and Israel Space Agency chairman professor Yuval Ne'eman. Tragically, he also had multiple sclerosis, which soon confined him to a wheelchair and led to his death in the mid-'80s. Haim's friends at the hostel all had their times for dropping in on him. Mine was just before sunset on Friday, when I would light the Shabbat candles on his desk, which was usually littered with books and notes. (In 1973 he could still write with relative ease.) After the blessing, he liked to sit and talk, often about religion. He was fascinated by what it meant to be a Jew. A scientist by training, he was a philosopher by temperament and cultured in a way few are today. He possessed an inner life whose richness did not diminish as the illness wore his body down. He loved music, listening with a kind of joyous intensity that did not relax until the final bars. Vivaldi, especially, delighted him. "This is sinful music," he commented more than once, with that lopsided grin which suggested he was eavesdropping on something not intended for mere mortals. HAIM'S breadth of knowledge and understanding was no less impressive for the modest way in which he displayed it. I was sure he had read many more books in English - my mother tongue, not his - than I had. Yet when I think back to our conversations, the phrase of his I remember is "Of course you are familiar with..." after which he would plunge into the analysis of some book whose title I had perhaps heard for the first time. He assumed that everyone was his equal. Showing off was quite foreign to him. He was too interested in the pursuit of truth, about himself, about the world, to adopt any kind of pose. Once we were talking about different kinds of intellect, and turned to the question of genius. "You mustn't think that this is so special," he told me. "To say that someone is a genius is simply to put him into a category, like people with blue eyes or brown hair." Where did he stand in this category? I asked innocently. "I am a little genius," he said, his eyes twinkling. WITH all his trials, I never heard Haim speak badly of anyone, or at least without understanding. If he was critical of any person, it was himself. He felt that his illness was a punishment for some misdeed - perhaps for trying to be "different" from others - and was haunted by the thought that he was "unworthy" to be a Jew. He loved Jerusalem, but was more comfortable away from it; it was "too much." AS I sit down to my Seder tonight, tired but hametz-free, I'll think about that wise old friend who lacked any crumb of vanity or conceit. In Moscow, he had been called Henrik. In Jerusalem, he once commented wistfully on the meaning of his new, Hebrew name: "Haim. Life... Not so appropriate for me, is it?" If life is knowledge, wisdom, dignity and "walking humbly with thy God," it was. It is.