Dedicated in loving memory of my father, Yisroel Ya’akov ben Tzvi, z”l (Jack Winston). May his soul have aliyah after aliyah, and always be a meilitz yoshar for Klal Yisroel.
The people quarreled with Moshe, and they said, "If only we had died with the death of our brothers before G–D!” (Bamidbar 20:3)
THEY COULD NICKNAME Sefer Bamidbar, the “Book of Complaints.” Parsha after parsha the Jewish people complain to Moshe about one thing or another. True, in real life the events themselves didn’t follow one day after the other. But the Torah presents them this way to make a point about what underlies them all: a sense of entitlement.
We have all felt a sense of entitlement at some time or another, that feeling that something “belongs” to us. If we happen to get what we want, then we feel justice has been served. If we don’t, then we feel as if the entire universe has been wronged.
It is obvious that such a feeling flies in the face of being happy with one’s portion. You cannot be happy with your portion if you think someone else has illicitly taken a part of it. And you certainly can’t feel love of G–D if you feel that He hasn’t protected your portion, and saved you from loss and injustice.
The more entitled a person feels, the more this is going to be true. A person will constantly be upset over perceived losses and injustices. Or they will try to take what they believe is theirs, which will not leave them on favorable terms either with G–D or with the people they are robbing.
Obviously, a person has to protect what they truly own. We’re not obligated to take injustices lying down. There are laws in “Choshen Mishpat” that specifically instruct a person to protect what is legally theirs, and how to go about doing so. Taking one’s property for granted is also a grave mistake.
This is not about that. This is about the things in life that WE believe should belong to us, and G–D disagrees. If He didn’t disagree, we’d have the things already. Never confuse the means for the end. People and things may stand in our way of success, but all of them only work for G–D in the end, and as mentioned in the previous chapter, for OUR own good.
From where does this belief come, that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment?
An entitled person has a higher sense of belief in their own importance than the equality of all individuals involved or society as a whole. Their focus is not on what is fair to everyone, just on what is not fair to them.
The operating term here is “self-belief.” What one thinks about themself determines whether they will feel entitled in a given situation or not. Humble people do not feel entitled. Arrogant people do. The rest of us may lean in the direction of one or the other, depending upon what we think about ourselves, and the situation we are in at the time.
For example, someone who considers themself smart might be offended and feel left out if their opinion is not sought when among people they deem to be equals or inferiors. But the same person will happily go unnoticed when among people they view as geniuses and superiors.
It is every human’s struggle. Too much self-belief leads to arrogance and often embarrassing, if not dangerous results. Too little self-belief leads to insecurity and debilitation. A meaningful and productive life lies somewhere between these two extremes, and life is the process of finding that point, even creating it. Historically, there have not been a lot of people who have successfully done so.
Everyone is “entitled” to self-belief; it says so right here:
G–D said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…” (Bereishis 1:26)
The “our,” as Rashi explains, is really “mine,” as in G–D’s image and likeness. This means that EVERY human EVER created, no matter how handsome or how ugly, how talented or how inept, has been made in the “image of G–D.” And though there is a lot of discussion as to exactly what this means, one thing is for certain: every human being bears some aspect of divine perfection.
Once Rebi Elazar, son of Rebi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his teacher. He rode along the riverside on his donkey, and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah. He happened to meet a very ugly man, who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, my master!”
Rebi Elazar did not return his greeting but instead said to him, “How ugly this person is! Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?”
“I do not know,” the man said. “But go to the craftsman who made me, and tell him: ‘How ugly is the vessel which you have made!’”
Realizing that he had been wrong, Rebi Elazar dismounted from his donkey, prostrated himself before the man, and said to him, "You are right. Forgive me!” (Ta’anis 20a)
How easy it is to forget that every living creature, especially a person, is G–D’s handiwork. Even a great Torah scholar such as Rebi Elazar ben Rebi Shimon did so, and treated the man he encountered virtually as a sub-human. But the man wisely rebuked him by reminding him of his divine origin, and within seconds, Rebi Elazar was instead humbled before him, begging for forgiveness.
There is a similar story that gets to the soul of the matter:
The daughter of the emperor said to Rebi Yehoshua ben Chananya, “Too bad that glorious wisdom [like yours is] in [such] an ugly vessel!”
So he asked her, “Does your father keep his wine in simple clay vessels?”
She answered: “In what then should he keep it?”
He said, “Important people like you should put it in gold and silver containers!”
She went and told this to her father. He put the wine in vessels of gold and silver and it turned sour. [When his advisors] came and told the emperor [that the wine had turned sour], he asked [his daughter], “Who told you to do this?”
She told him: “Rebi Yehoshua be Chananya!”
[So the emperor] summoned him and asked him: “Why did you say this to her?”
[Rebi Yehoshua ben Chananya] told him: “As she spoke to me, so I spoke to her [to show her that fine material is best preserved in the least of vessels].”
[But the emperor asked him:] “But there are handsome people who are learned?”
[Rebi Yehoshua replied:] “Had they been ugly, they would have been even more learned.” (Ta’anis 7a)
Rebi Yehoshua and the emperor’s daughter had been discussing wisdom, but it could have just as easily been a discussion about the soul. In fact, they really are one and the same thing, wisdom and the soul, the former flowing from the latter. The soul tends to be better in a simpler “vessel.”
It is no coincidence that the more “beautiful” the generation becomes, the more entitled people seem to become as well. No one is saying that there is anything wrong with being attractive, or wealthy, or being careful to dress nicely. Judging by the natural beauty of the world, there is something G–Dly about that too. We’re just saying that those specific physical attributes often complicate matters when it comes to the ability of the soul to do what it was sent here to do: tikun—rectification.
This is why we are impressed when we meet someone who is both handsome, beautiful, rich, etc., AND humble. We know that they are not a likely combination. People are drawn to success because they want it for themselves, and tend idolize those people who appear to have achieved it. This makes it hard for them to keep their own egos at bay.
In a yetzer hara run society, it is the only way. Emphasis on material success and pleasures makes it difficult for spiritual values to have much of a say. All attention is shifted towards Society’s idea of success.
The only problem is that physically we’re not all equal. In fact, there are HUGE discrepancies when it comes to physical attributes such appearance and wealth, making life very cliquey, and jealousy incredibly likely. Equality is demanded where it cannot exist, resulting in a tremendous sense of entitlement but few ways to achieve it.
There can only be backlash in the end.
Some people, because of their material “shortcomings,” have either left the system or never had a chance to enter it. It may not have been their intention, and perhaps they were envious at first of others who had the “credentials” they lacked. But they nevertheless chose instead to go against the flow of Society.
And while going that way, they tend to find other traits and values that, lo and behold, are FAR more valuable. Values like humility, wisdom, kindness, modesty, etc. Perhaps they notice, perhaps they don’t, but in the process they tend to become really fine people. They develop a great sense of appreciation and little sense of entitlement. They are the builders of society, not the ones who destroy it.
I have dedicated this week’s “Perceptions” in honor of the eighth yarzheit of my father, Yisroel Ya’akov ben Tzvi, z”l (Jack Winston). He was my mentor in so many wonderful ways, and one of the most important was to never feel a sense of entitlement, but to work hard for what I wanted in life. He certainly did. I certainly try. May the learning of these pages of Torah be a great merit for his Neshamah, which should constantly ascend.