Balancing Humility and Arrogance

Yael Eckstein  |  July 5, 2022

Yael Eckstein praying at Western Wall

The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer. — Numbers 19:6

Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Chukat, which means “requirement,” from Numbers 19:1–22:1.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, affectionately known simply as Reb Bunim, was one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the Hasidic movement in Eastern Europe around 200 years ago. He was famous for his short and penetrating comments that would completely transform people in a moment.

Of all Reb Bunim’s famous sayings, there is one that I have always found especially profound. He used to say that every person should have two pieces of paper in his pockets. On one piece of paper he should write, “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). And in the other pocket, the note should read: “The world was created just for me.”

What an amazing lesson, balancing humility and arrogance. On the one hand, we must be humble. But excessive humility can lead a person to feel insignificant and worthless. So along comes the second note which may seem arrogant, but really means that every person should always feel responsible for the fate of the entire world.

Balancing Humility and Arrogance

We see this lesson hinted at in this week’s Torah portion, “The priest is to take some cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool and throw them onto the burning heifer.” This verse is a continuation of the laws for the purification process for someone who came into contact with death.

The process, as we learned in yesterday’s devotion, required the sacrifice of a red heifer without defect. Once the red heifer was completely burned, water mixed with the remaining ashes were sprinkled on the person who became impure. Our verse today furthered required that when the heifer was burned, the priest was to throw into the fire a piece of cedar wood and a hyssop branch.

The Jewish sages taught that the cedar and hyssop represent two types of spiritual impurity. A cedar is a very tall tree. This represents people who are haughty and think too highly of themselves. In contrast, hyssop is a very low bush, growing along the surface of the ground, which represents excessive humility.

For people who regard themselves as unimportant, purification means remembering that every one of us is critical to God’s plan. On the other hand, those who are haughty and arrogant need to be reminded that we are “but dust and ashes” before God.

The key to balancing humility and arrogance is to remember each day “I am nothing but dust and ashes” and “the world was created just for me.”

Your Turn:

Are you more of a hyssop or a cedar? What can you do today to find balance and serve God?

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