Counting the Omer with Laura Goldman
Day 28 — Not Taking Credit for Oneself
Eino Machazik Tova L'atzmo • אינו מחזיק טובה לעצמו
By David Gottlieb, Chicago, IL
In a couple of months, I will complete an Iditarod.
Not an actual sled-dog race across Alaska, mind you, but an Iditarod nonetheless. Ten years ago, hoping to study Jewish history more deeply, I went back to school at the University of Chicago Divinity School. I received a Masters Degree, but wanted to keep learning. I was accepted into the PhD program in the History of Judaism, even though I was twice the age of most of my fellow students. It has taken me eight years, but, God willing, in June I'll receive the degree. And then my learning will begin in earnest.
Perhaps that sounds like a "humblebrag." But the truth is, my education required patience, persistence, and equanimity – not just from me, but from all those upon whom I relied. My wife and children helped me with Hebrew. My oldest sister helped me with German. My teachers, and fellow students worked hard to impart knowledge, helped me study and internalize it, and were patient with me when I faltered. My colleagues at work shouldered responsibilities from which I had to distance myself in order to focus on my studies.
In Pirkei Avot 2:9, we read: "Yochanan ben Zakkai received the tradition from Hillel and Shammai. He used to say, 'If you have studied much Torah, do not take credit for yourself, because that is what you were created to do.'" Not claiming credit for oneself means recognizing what you were made to do, rather than exulting over what you did. And it means reflecting on what a blessing it is that you were able to do it.
It's clear, then, that not claiming credit for oneself is closely related to the middah of anavah, or humility. If we truly understand the source of our strengths and our achievements, then we remain aware that they do not begin with us – they flow through us. Not claiming credit for oneself is essential for maintaining the flow of divine energy, through whatever channels we may possess, to the wider world.
When I graduate in June, my mother will be in attendance, God willing. She quit college to marry my father in 1942. When I, the youngest of her six children, was in grade school, she resumed her college education. She kept studying, and received her PhD in English Literature the day after I graduated from high school in 1977. I know that whatever capacity for learning I may possess comes through her. Whatever discipline I have comes from her, and from my father of blessed memory. Whatever they bestowed upon me came through them from beyond them – and continues to flow, as long as I do not claim it as my own.
Not claiming credit for oneself is seeing oneself as one link in an ever-lengthening chain – one whose first link connects us all to God.
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