Parshas Eikev: Success & Unhappiness
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage (Deut. 8:12-14).
How does success breed contempt and rebelliousness against god? These verses identify the sinner’s lack of recognition for all the previous factors that contributed to his current well-being. Einstein used to say the following:
A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life depend on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received, and am still receiving.
These verses speak to a person's myopic view which is fueled by his ego. One overlooks his dependence on factors other than the self, for it is humbling and contrary to the ego. One’s ego causes him to forget God who performed all the great deeds for his ancestors, allowing him to have his present bounty. But if a person does not forget and maintains his attitude of appreciation, this can contribute to his happiness and can counter the destructive forces of his ego. The following is quite a potent verse, as Moses reminds us that our wherewithal to become successful is God's own creation:
Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth, in fulfillment of the covenant that He made on oath with your fathers, as is still the case. (Ibid. 8:18)
Thus, one’s feelings of greatness regarding his successes is a lie, for God created our very capacity to succeed.
Verse 8:19 below goes on to show how the person's need for security is not lost—even though he forgets God’s goodness—for then he is compelled to follow idolatry:
If you do forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve them or bow down to them, I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.
9:4 is another expression of ego:
And when the Lord your God has thrust them (other nations) from your path, say not to yourselves, “The Lord has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues”; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you.
To correct us prior to rebelling against God, God commands us in charity, tithes, Shmitta, Jubilee, and other forms of charity from our earnings and crops. In this manner, we are constantly reminded from Whom we receive our wealth and harvest, as we constantly give back to Him what is His, and not ours. King David said, “But all is from You, and it is from Your Hand that we have given to You” (I Chronicles 29:14). God commands us not to act as owners during Shmitta and Jubilee. And we must give from all our hard work to the poor. Recognizing God’s will and His ownership, we defend ourselves from caving to our egoistic drives. Mere gasping of God’s ownership is insufficient, we must regularly act to restrain our strong egos until our minds mature to the realization of our true position as creations and servants, and not as owners.
Ego has a place when each person strives to preserve his and her property to live and follow Torah. But ego has no place when it opposes Torah.