Singing Ashamnu: Striking a (Counterintuitive) Balance, By Rabbi Joshua Lookstein

The famous teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Przysucha – that everyone should  carry around 2 pieces of paper, one in each pocket, one that reads Bishvili nivra ha’olam (the world was created for me) and the other V’anochi afar va’efer (I am but dust and ashes) – has early echoes in Parshat Ekev. The beginning of the Parshais a roller coaster of similar emotions. At times, God seems to be boosting the confidence of B’nei Yisraeland at other times he makes sure they are humble. Baruch tihiyeh mikol ha’amim(you will be the most blessed from among all the nations).  Lo tira meihem(don’t be afraid of the nations who dwell in the land).

And yet, when your wealth increases, V’amarta bilvavechakochi v’otzem yadi asah li et hachayil hazeh(and you say in your heart, “my strength and the work of my hands made all this possible”), vizacharta et Hashem Elokecha(and you will then remember God), ki hu hanotein lecha koach la’asot chayil– it is He who gives you the ability to accumulate great wealth. Be humble. And there are other examples.

But then there are some pesukimthat seem like hybrid statements, including even the previous one. Bnei Yisrael, you have accumulated great wealth, you have achieved a lot in your lifetimes but it is God who gave you the foundation for your achievements. Or ki lo al halechem l’vado yichyeh ha’adam– not by the bread, the money, the living that you make for yourself, not on that alone can you live – ki al kol motza phi Hashem yichyeh ha’adam– but you can also live on sustenance that God provides. You can provide and God can provide. A combination. And finally, V’achalta, v’savata, u’veirachta (you will eat, you will be satiated and you will bless God). You ate, you enjoyed, you earned it, but God had a hand in it.

That balance seems hard to strike. The right amount of humility and the right amount of self-assuredness. But it’s not only desirable, it may even be the way to lead, the way to make a difference, and ultimately the path to teshuvah and self-improvement.

Several months ago, Adam Grant, The Saul P. Steinberg Professor of Management at Wharton, wrote an article entitled “Tapping into the power of Humble Narcissism.” He began by quoting a study that looked at whether customer service employees were more productive under narcissistic leaders or humble leaders. The least effective leaders were narcissists. Humble leaders were more effective, but the best leaders were what Grant called humble narcissists. “Humble narcissists have grand ambitions but they don’t feel entitled to them. They don’t deny their weaknesses; they work to overcome them.” And he says there are three types of humility that matter. And while these are all examples meant to impact business leaders, they also impact non-profit leaders and they are equally applicable to us as individuals, and worthy of consideration duringEluland the Yamim Noraim.

The first is humility of ideas. Quite simply, we don’t have a monopoly on the truth and when we behave like we do, we turn others off. And, on the contrary, when we acknowledge the limitations of our ideas, we have a better chance of others seeing the potential in them. Grant gives the example of Rufus Griscom, the founder of the parenting blog Babble. When presenting to investors for seed funding, he included a slide in his presentation that read, “Here are the 3 reasons you should NOT invest in my company,” and he walked away with $3 million in funding. In a subsequent pitch to Disney, he included a slide that read, “Here are the 5 reasons you should not fund me,” and Disney bought the company for $40 million. Speaking about the downsides made the upsides more credible and actually invited his audience into a discussion about fixing the problems.

Competing ideas are maybe at an all time high at the moment and few are convincing others to adopt their beliefs. Imagine if an opinion came with an admission that it was only an opinion and that it’s not perfect. If it doesn’t succeed in gaining followers, at least it could tamp down the rhetoric to an almost acceptable level.

The second kind of humility is performance humility, the ability to articulate that we – not our ideas – but we ourselves have weaknesses, that we make mistakes, that sometimes we fall short of our goals. Scientist Melanie Stefan pointed out that our bios and resumes only point out our positives. And so, Johannes Haushofer, a professor of Psychology at Princeton created a Failure Resume. Its sections include: Degree Programs I Did Not Get Into, Academic Positions and Fellowships I did Not Get, and Paper Rejections from Academic Journals. His last section he calls Meta-failures and it reads “This darn failure resume has received way more attention than my entire body of academic work.” And there are other examples of this. Managers who share their own performance review with their employees to show a desire to learn and to grow.

Acknowledging our own limitations is the opposite of the Everyone Gets a Trophy culture that we are living in. Losing an argument to our children, showing them – whether they are 4,14, 24 or 34 – that we have failed and regularly fail at things, is an excellent way of instilling resilience and a growth mindset. All they know is where we are now, not the missteps along the way.

And the third and final humility is cultural humility. Grant speaks about companies that create a culture and hire people who fit the culture. It’s not such a crazy idea. But while it works initially to increase revenue, those companies tend to grow at a slower rate than others who hire based on skills or potential. The argument is that hiring on culture reflects a lack of humility, that the culture is perfect and can’t gain from those whose culture might be different. It leads to a monolithic way of thinking as opposed to diversity of thought. It’s not that a good culture isn’t important. It’s that a culture itself can become arrogant. Hence the need for cultural humility.

Most of us are part of groups that curated a certain culture and then invited others in who fit that culture. This is a tough one because a common culture has so many benefits and is, most of all, comfortable. Diversity is risky, uncomfortable, and who really wants that? But it has benefits. It is personally broadening and welcoming and inclusive and, ultimately, humbling.

While using the word ‘narcissism’ in the same breath as teshuvawould seem to be counterintuitive, some aspects of these weeks speak to striking the balance we are discussing. The goal is not to list our sins to the point of depression. Nowhere is this more evident than in our custom to sing the Ashamnu paragraph – “We have transgressed, we have acted perfidiously, we have robbed, we have slandered…” – in major notes. And while we are bent over when we say it, we are not dressed in torn, tattered clothing, but in our Yomtovfinest. We are trying to strike a balance.

V’achalta, v’savata, u’veirachta. We worked hard, we enjoyed the fruits of ourlabor, and we thank God. Ki hu hanotein lecha koach la’asot chayil– because it is He who gives us the ability to accumulate what we have. It’s like humble narcissism. It’s ok to think that we have some great ideas but it is also helpful to recognize that not all of our ideas are great . We haveachieved great things but we can also fill up a failure resume. We have created a strong culture and community around us but we should always be open to new ways of looking at things. As Adam Grant says, “I believe I can do extraordinary things, but I always have something to learn.”

That is a healthy attitude for approaching these weeks. Bowed, but knowing that teshuvahis within our reach.

Rabbi Joshua Lookstein is the Head of School at Westchester Day School, a 400-student, Modern Orthodox Elementary school in Mamaroneck, New York.

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