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Facing our potential as we face our creator

  • GideonPogrundUSE
People over-estimate themselves.
by RABBI GIDEON POGRUND | Sep 06, 2018

For entrepreneurs starting new businesses, the failure rate is at least 50%. When asked what chance of success they think they have, these entrepreneurs typically – and correctly – say 50%. Yet, when asked what they consider their chance of success to be, they typically answer 90%.

In many countries, about 50% of marriages end in divorce, but brides and grooms believe there is almost zero chance that they will ever divorce – even those who have already been divorced.

Smokers know the statistical risks of smoking, but do not believe they are more prone to lung cancer and heart disease than non-smokers.

These are examples of optimism bias – our tendency to over-estimate ourselves.

You also find this over-optimism, this sense of invincibility, with ethics.

Professor Nitin Nohria, the Dean of Harvard Business School, runs a programme for new chief executives of large companies. They are asked to rank a list of ten responsibilities in order of difficulty. It includes setting the company’s strategy, establishing a new management team, working with the board of directors, and setting the right moral tone.

Setting the right moral tone is invariably ranked as one of the easiest aspects of management. As Nohria says, “They all feel deeply secure in their own moral compass.” They believe that they would never lead the organisation astray or do something that would get them on the front pages of the newspapers. But Nohria points out that many of them do end up in the newspapers for precisely the type of misconduct they once felt was inconceivable.

The Torah warns against spiritual and ethical over-optimism: “Don’t trust yourself until the day of your death.” (Pirkei Avos 2/5). In other words, the danger of failure always exists.

But there is an opposite danger: we also under-estimate ourselves and our potential for spiritual and ethical greatness. This is linked with a sense of victimhood, of shifting the blame and not taking responsibility for our failures. It’s a syndrome which stretches back to the beginning of humanity, when Adam and Chava sin, and he blames her, and she blames the snake. It’s a syndrome which runs throughout human history. The culprits may change – the government, or the financial system, or the media, or our parents, or our genes. But there is a deep tendency which repeats itself – to evade responsibility.

It is associated with under-estimating our potential for ethical and spiritual achievement. It reflects a fundamental pessimism about ourselves, defined by psychologist Martin Seligman as “learned helplessness”.

But, the Torah’s view is very different. We are made in Hashem’s image, implying a deep similarity. Just as he is free to choose – he can create and destroy worlds – so are we, within our own human constraints, free to choose who we will be. As the Rambam says, we can be as lowly as the wicked Yeravam or as great as Moshe. The choice is ours.

Underpinning this is a basic question: what, essentially, is a human being? The clue lies with the prophet Yechezkel, the only prophet continually referred to by Hashem as ben adam (human). The great commentator Rashi offers two explanations for why Yechezkel is called ben adam. One is because it implies that he is grand and sublime, able to co-exist with the angels. The other is because it implies that he should not think too well of himself – he is undeserving of such a positive self-view. The explanations are contradictory, but both are true, and reflect our dual nature.

The Mishna cryptically refers to human being as maveh (Bava Kamma 2a), which has a double meaning or connotation. Maveh implies that the human being is, by definition, one who prays and seeks closeness to Hashem. However, maveh is also identified as one of the four principal damaging agents, implying that the human being’s very nature is to inflict damage and destruction in the world; he or she is an accident waiting to happen. This again suggests duality – we are capable of reaching both heights and the depths.

This, then, is how the Torah is telling us to relate to ourselves. Don’t over-estimate yourself – the danger of ethical and spiritual failure looms large. But equally, don’t under-estimate yourself and your potential for ethical and spiritual transformation.

Two biographies have recently appeared about extraordinary people. Rabbi Yossi Wallis grew up in New York where he started a street gang before being recruited to work for the mafia. In order to escape the mafia, he joined the US Marines. He ended up moving to Israel, and after serving in the Air Force, became a successful businessman. One day, at a restaurant in Tel Aviv, he was about to order what is euphemistically referred to as “white meat”. He was then struck by a vision of his grandfather, who had been murdered by the Nazis for refusing to eat pork. This set him on a journey of religious exploration, and led him to attend a seminar run by Arachim, the global outreach organisation. After many years of study, he became a rabbi and the Chief Executive of Arachim.

Rebbetzin Henny Machlis was a legendary figure in Jerusalem. Mother of 14 children, she lived in a modest Jerusalem-sized apartment, yet would host 100-150 guests at every Shabbos meal. She filled her home with those who were most alone and vulnerable, receiving them with a loving heart. She wasn’t born a tzedakis (a righteous person), she was a regular girl from America who worked on herself to become the remarkable woman that she was.

Our lives may not be as colourful and dramatic as those of Rabbi Wallis and Rebbetzin Machlis. But they remind us of our huge potential to grow and develop ourselves, not to settle for spiritual and ethical mediocrity.

All this relates to the judgement that we face on Rosh Hashanah, characterised by the Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 15a) as passing before Hashem like bnei meron. The Talmud gives three explanations for this term: sheep passing single file through a small gate; people walking one by one on a narrow steep path; and soldiers being inspected individually. These explanations share a common theme and message. When we stand before Hashem in judgement on Rosh Hashanah, we do so in radical isolation. We are held starkly accountable for how we live our lives, and we are expected to take full responsibility for our choices. It’s impossible to offer excuses like, “I just did what I did without thinking, because others did it.”

The Mishnah teaches that throughout human history, no two people have been or ever will be the same (Sanhedrin 37a). We are each made up of a unique mixture of talents, skills, strengths, and deficiencies – of positive and negative potential. It is on this basis that the Mishnah declares, “Therefore, each person is obligated to say, ‘the world was created for me’”. Because of our unique potential, we have a profound personal responsibility to fulfil our individual life mission, and to make the contribution to the world that no one else is able to make.

As we approach the awesome judgement of Rosh Hashanah, it is for us think about this responsibility – about the need to protect ourselves against our dark potential for failure and to fulfil our rich potential for growth and achievement.

  • Rabbi Gideon Pogrund is the Director of the GIBS Ethics and Governance Think Tank, and is a Rabbi at Ohr Somayach Shul.

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