Perhaps the most enduring, certainly the cruelest and most evil False God we serve is ourself. I’m not referring to the trivial case of seeking full license to pursue our pleasures–a sober look from almost anyone self-doomed to indulgence quickly reveals the emptiness of that life. Rather, I’m talking about someone who makes himself his very own ultimate authority.
I recently read (I apologize that I can’t find the original citation, but if anyone is familiar with this, please let us all know in the comments section) that preceding the events in Sh’mot, including the ascension of a new Pharaoh who didn’t know Yosef and leading to Yisrael’s enslavement, was Yosef’s death and the death of his brothers, the first generation of leaders of the Jewish People. Not only were these people familiar with Yosef, the Tzaddik, Yosef the saintly, righteous man, a man who no matter how much secular power came into his hands always remembered that The Creator is, was and always will be our ultimate authority, they even more so lost the connection with Yaakov, whose relationship with God was even greater.
In the midst of a great famine, this nomad family, along with so many others, entered Egypt for relief. But, unlike all the others, acknowledging and following higher authority than merely themselves, they reached the top social positions in their new host country. They were given dominion over the lushest Egyptian district, Goshen (relate to Geshem materiality) and in contrast to neighboring refugee populations, lucky merely to be alive, they lived in luxury beyond the dreams of most Egyptians!
But with Yaakov’s, and then with Yosef’s deaths, the Jewish people all-too-quickly forgot their great message, that God, and not they (and certainly not the secular Egyptian authorities nor any other human agency) was in charge. We were no longer worthy of our elevated status since it was no longer based on a higher truth of our total dependence on The Creator, but, rather, on that most self-destructive illusion of our own inherent superiority. Thus we rapidly fell to the very bottom of the social scale, abject slaves.
Whenever Man becomes the “measure of all things”, declares one of his own “Supreme Leader”, “Wisest Of All Men”, “The Perfect Human Being” “God Himself” and the like, unprecedented tyranny inevitably follows. Even when such a phenomenon starts off innocently and idealistically, it rapidly degenerates. It puts us at the very trailhead of the road to self-caused disaster.
Literally, not a day passes since I became a rabbi where the words of my rabbi/friend/mentor, Rabbi Daniel Goldberger z”l don’t reverberate in my head. When, in my mid-20’s I finally decided to become a rabbi, I made an appointment to see him. When I explained my plan, he looked me straight in eye and said, “Zeitlin, there is one thing I never allow myself, and that’s absolute certainty.” The moment we convince ourselves that we have complete knowledge of anything, we have left our humanity behind.
Not only on the global scale, but also much closer to home, whenever we usurp the mantle of God, we are immediately faced with challenges to which we know we will be inadequate. When we claim ultimate authority, we’re left breathless with the speed at which our knowledge retreated. This is the tragedy when one member tries to dominate the family.
The arrogance of one person or a very small group, usually self-appointed, to speak with full authority in proclaiming God’s way (all too often today in harkening back to a mythological past of “obedience”) always brings division, denominationalism and, inevitably, greater and greater distance from each individual to God. Each step towards making ourselves the final arbiter leaves us alone, isolated and increasingly less-effective.
We find that freedom this Pesach promises not merely by dethroning Pharaoh nor even by drowning him in the sea, but by bringing him, as well as his influence within each one of us, to the understanding that only God is the true Master of the Universe, relieving us of the responsibility we will always fail. It’s time to de-throne ourselves in favor of life itself.