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Pirke Avot chapter four, verse four: m'od m'od

This is a short verse, anyway:

R. Levitas of Yavne said: Be very, very humble in spirit, for the anticipation of man is the worm.

That is the translation of Irving M. Bunim, whose work Ethics from Sinai I am very much enjoying. Mr. Bunim points out that when, in the verse, we are advised to be very, very humble, rather than using the Hebrew trick of repeating the word humble for emphasis (which might be translated as be humble with great humility or some such, although actually it’s just a different way of expressing emphasis, the way in English one might say be fucking humble, where the adverb is an otherwise meaningless intensifier), R. Levitas uses the separate Hebrew intensifier m’od, and in fact uses it twice: m’od m’od hevay sh’fal ruach. Why is this significant?

The word m’od is spelled mem, aleph, dalet. Who is mem? Moses, of course. And aleph is Abraham, and dalet, of course, David. A reminder, then, that if Moses, Abraham and David were humble before the Lord, surely you, too, should remember to be humble. But then, why m’od m’od? What else is mem, aleph, dalet? Well, m’od is an anagram for aleph, dalet, mem, or Adam, or more generally, man. So we can expand the verse by connotation, All men should be very, very humble as Moses, Abraham and David were humble, for the etcetera etcetera.

But what is this humility of spirit that all men are supposed to have, emulating Moses, Abraham and David? Is it merely the opposite of pride? How do we go about being humble, being very, very humble?

I had always read the verse as an exhortation for me to remember my own mortality: What is there for me to be proud of, when I will be buried, worm-eaten, and forgotten? This is simultaneously true and difficult to comtemplate: unless I have somebody standing a step behind me whispering “remember, thou art mortal”. Mr. Bunim points out, however, that it is not just the person attempting humility that is destined for the worm, but everybody else. What is the point in being one-up on somebody who is worm-bound? Where’s the pride in that?

This is a different conception of humility and of pride, and worth looking in to, I think. The first is focused on the mental state behind the action: keep in mind that your value is not so great as to justify acting like a prick. I struggle with this all the time, and have managed, on the whole, to control my rather serious arrogance—not that I have conquered it and am done, but that I recognize it as a problem and am often able to moderate for the moment. The second, which I have never really thought about before today is focused on pride primarily as interaction between the potentially-proud person and another, and only secondarily on the mental state. That is, pride is (in this view) fundamentally about placing yourself above another person, through word or deed, in order to show your superiority. Pride, then, requires another person to one-up. The mental state of the individual proud person is not at the heart of the definition; the relationship between the two people is.

To take my usual example of pride: cutting somebody off on the road. This stems, it seems to YHB, from the kind of pride or arrogance that says that wherever I am going, it is more important that I get there soon and that I not waste time on the road being behind somebody, and that while somebody else is going to be just a tad slowed by my actions, and that everybody else around me will be just a tad endangered by my actions, none of that is really very important, because it’s all about me. In the first formulation, the problem is that I am self-centered and arrogant, that I am not interested in what difficulties I cause for other people. In the second, the problem is that I have put myself in front of the other car, to show that driver that I can’t be cut off myself.

Now, this example seems to make my first formulation a better fit for the problems of pride, because, really, most of the time you really are not thinking about the other cars as containing actual humans, just as a kind of obstacle course. And this is just the problem, of course, by this formulation: by ignoring the humanity of other people, you enter into a mental state that puts yourself first.

On the other hand, the really egregious cases are when someone is trying to get back in the lane after passing in the shoulder during a construction-related slowdown, and I’m thinking Oh, yeah? Like hell I’m letting you in, you SOB. The most likely to cause accident, and the most likely to make me angry (and anger leads to all sorts of sins) are the ones where I am aware that there is a human fucker driving the car, and want the miserable bastard to pay. And in the second formulation of the idea, it reminds me that the fucker is headed for the worm, anyway, so let it go. Your revenge is that the driver of the other car is mortal, and so are you, so leave some room and keep driving.

The first happens more frequently, the second is more severe. Both ways of thinking about it are helpful, I think. But the second has a gentler undertone to it, particularly when combined with the m’od m’od idea up above. If you take a moment, when you feel the need to one-up somebody, particularly somebody who is really annoying, when you feel the need to put somebody in their place, think for a moment of Moses and Abraham and David, all dead, think of Adam and all his seed, food for worms, and think of the bastard you are about to pin to a card, and think, you know? Who needs it. We’re made for better stuff than that.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


It's interesting that the anticipation of evolutionary theory is the aphorism.

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