Except for Pride

Vanitas Still Life with Books, by Jan Lievens. Date: c.1627 – c.1628; Netherlands.

One day when I was in elementary school—the fifth grade, I believe—I was walking down my school’s long central hallway; no one else was present. There were classrooms on both sides with doors entering into the hall. Suddenly, a teacher appeared, standing in a classroom doorway. She looked at me and made an easily understood gesture with one of her hands. “Move closer to the wall,” she said. “Walking down the center is a sign of pride.” I should mention that I was attending a private religious school.

I don’t remember deciding to walk down the hall’s center. Nor can I remember now what I was thinking about at the time. I didn’t question the teacher’s judgment, however, and quickly moved closer to the wall on my right, feeling self-conscious and a bit embarrassed. I never walked down the center of my school’s hallway again. I don’t think I’ve ever done so anywhere else either, since that time. So strong was the impression made on my mind by the teacher’s comment.

The following year, at the same school, another incident concerning my pride occurred. My father was a civil engineer. His printing and cursive writing were beautiful to see. I came across a book on calligraphy in our home; it must have been one of Dad’s. It contained alphabets in different scripts and some sample words. I was fascinated by them, especially by one of the cursive scripts. Using it as a model, I slowly and carefully practiced writing my name several times. Then I practiced writing the entire alphabet and many of the sample words. I decided to write one of my homework assignments using the new writing I had learned.

In school the following week, during one of our class silent periods, used I think by teachers to catch up on grading student papers, my teacher called me to her desk. Her face always had a rather stern expression, and I was a little frightened of her. She had my homework paper in her hand. She pointed at it, and looking at me, asked, “What is this?” I didn’t understand her question. “What?” I asked. “Don’t write straight up and down like this,” she said. “Slant your writing like you’ve been taught. To write like this,” she said, pointing at my paper, “is a sign of pride.”

In this case, I felt that my motivation was purely aesthetic. I wanted my writing to be beautiful, like my father’s. Again, however, I didn’t question my teacher’s judgment, nor tell my parents what had happened. I just returned to writing the way my teachers taught me.

This year, my sister, who attended the same school as I did, visited me; it was her first trip to Israel. My wife and I—my wife did all the hard parts—hosted her on a “grand tour of the Holy Land.” Several times during her stay with us, my sister wrote herself notes. Out of curiosity, I sometimes watched her while she was writing, not to see what she had written but rather to see how she had written it. Her penmanship, going on sixty years now after having learned it in our school, was the one our teachers so diligently taught us. My sister is one of the most humble people I know.

Someone might say that neither of the two incidents I’ve recorded from elementary school is definite proof of a problem with pride. So, let me share one more, this one from high school. My parents sent me to a public high school. It took me a while to get used to it. In time, I came to enjoy public school, but my very first year, something unpleasant happened. I was sitting in my English class, chatting with one of my classmates. The teacher had not yet arrived. When she walked in, she glanced at all of us, then, looking directly at me, said: “You think you’re so smart, don’t you?” I didn’t know then and still have no idea what made her say that to me. Nor did I ever ask her.

What am I to conclude from these episodes? I have come to believe that I’m a prideful person, that in me, subtly at work is my spirit’s greatest enemy, pride. It often displays itself in ways hidden from me—a gesture, a facial expression, a tone of voice, a choice of words.

One of my favorite jokes is about a rabbi, a cantor, and a synagogue’s custodian, its janitor.

It is Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. The synagogue is packed. Extra chairs have been set out. Every adult is fasting and in a reflective mood, concentrating on becoming a better person in the new year. The Rabbi enters from the back and walks solemnly to the bimah; his elegant prayer-shawl draped magnificently over his shoulders. He ascends the bimah and takes a seat next to the cantor. He sits silently for a few moments, then rises, kisses the curtain of the Holy Ark, bows his head, and says, sotto voce, but still loud enough for the cantor and those seated near the bimah to hear: “Even though I am the Chief Rabbi of this large congregation, in this beautifully-designed building, in a famous city, in a powerful country, in the eyes of the Almighty I am a nothing.” He returns with dignity to his seat.

The cantor, who has overheard the Rabbi, wishing not to be outdone, takes a quick look in a mirror discretely concealed close by his seat to ensure his special cantor’s hat is sitting properly atop his head, is aligned correctly. He rises, in turn, kisses the curtain of the ark and says quietly: “While it is true that I am a graduate of the best cantorial school in all of Europe, and have been chosen to lead this vast congregation on this holiest day of the year, still in the eyes of the Almighty, I am a nothing.” He returns to his seat.

The janitor, sitting in a side row close to the bimah, stands in place, slowly strikes the left side of his chest several times, and says: “Though I have the opportunity to care for and to clean this magnificent house of worship, in the Almighty’s eyes, I am a nothing.”

Upon hearing this, the Rabbi leans over and taps the cantor on the shoulder. Nodding in the direction of the custodian, he whispers: “Look at who’s calling himself a nothing.”

It is challenging to defeat pride. It is one of the sins included in what Christians call “The Seven Deadly Sins.” Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), also known as the Baal Shem Tov, founder of modern Chassidism, once said: “Every spiritual malady has a cure, except for pride.”

Despite what the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have said, or maybe because of it, I am posting today’s blog with hope, the hope that something Ernest Hemingway once wrote is not only well-written but also true.

If he wrote it he could get rid of it. He had gotten rid of many things by writing them.

Ernest Hemingway. Winner Take Nothing [1933]. Fathers and Sons.

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.