In the last two letters, we discussed the false pride of those who have wisdom, strength, and wealth, but who fail to realize that these are Divine gifts which are to be used to further the life-giving Divine goals. We need to remember, however, that all our character traits, including pride, were created by Hashem – the Compassionate One. All of our traits therefore have a purpose within the creation, and in this letter, we will discuss how “pride” can be used in a way which is in harmony with the Divine goals.
In browsing through dictionaries, I came across the following definitions of pride:
1. excessive self-esteem, conceit
2. a reasonable or justifiable sense of one's worth or position
From the perspective of Jewish tradition, we can have a justifiable form of pride when we have a sense of our worth as beings created in the Divine image with the capacity to emulate the Divine love, compassion, and justice. An example of someone who had a justifiable form of pride was King Jehoshaphat, the ruler of Judah, as it is written:
“So Hashem established the kingdom in his hands…he had much wealth and honor. His heart took pride in the ways of Hashem” (II Chronicles 17:5,6).
“His heart took pride in the ways of Hashem” – Although he had wealth and honor, he was not proud because of them; instead, he took pride in that he walked in the ways of Hashem. (Commentary of Metzudas David, a classical biblical commentator)
In his comments on the above verse, the Vilna Gaon, a leading 18th century sage, explains that the one who takes pride in the ways of Hashem will strengthen himself to do more! We are to therefore take pride in following the ways of Hashem, and in this spirit, the Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the following Divine message:
“Thus said Hashem: Let not the wise one glorify himself in his wisdom, nor the strong one glorify himself in his strength, nor the rich one glorify himself in his riches. For only with this may one glorify himself - contemplating and knowing Me, that I am Hashem Who does lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these is My desire, spoke Hashem.” (Jeremiah 9:22, 23)
“Contemplating and knowing Me” – “The knowledge of God is to go in His ways, to do lovingkindness, justice and righteousness.” (Commentary of the Radak, a classical biblical commentator)
“Righteousness” – The Hebrew term for righteousness in this verse is “tzedakah” –a term which also refers to the sharing of our resources with those in need.
The above Divine proclamation reveals how we can have a justifiable form of Jewish pride. It reminds us that the pride of our people, who are a tiny fraction of one percent of the world’s population, is not in the high percentage of Jews who win the Nobel Prize, nor in the military strength of the State of Israel; moreover, it is not in the financial success of some Jews in business or the various professions. The true pride of our people is in the ways we have done ”lovingkindness, justice, and tzedakah on earth” – for in these is the Divine desire. As the people who are to serve as the spiritual “firstborn child” among the nations, we are to remind each and every nation that national pride is justifiable only when a nation is dedicating its resources and talents to serving the Divine purpose by doing “lovingkindness, justice, and tzedakah on earth.”
Among the reasons for Jewish pride is our historic devotion to the mitzvah of tzedakah – the sharing of our resources with those in need. An interesting example can be found in the tzedakah practice described by the noted 12th century sage, Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah (Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor 9:1):
“Every city which has Jews is obligated to appoint officials who are well known and trustworthy, who will go among the people during the weekdays and collect from each one what is appropriate for him to give and what has been assessed of him (by the officials of the community).”
Maimonides then adds the following sociological observation: “We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have such a fund for tzedakah!”
In addition to the official tzedakah fund which was collected by the officials of the local community, there were also voluntary tzedakah organizations and groups which met various needs. The book “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages” by Israel Abrahams describes some of the various tzedakah organizations of one typical Jewish community in Smyrna (Asia Minor) which provided the needy with clothing, funds for medicine and doctors, tuition payments for their children, funds for legal expenses, funds for burial expenses, and funds for other diverse needs. Jewish communities all over the world also had interest-free loan societies, as well as societies which would loan books and various other items. (Cited in “Permission to Receive” by Lawrence Keleman)
In the book about Jewish giving titled “With All Your Possessions,” Dr. Meir Tamari describes how Jewish communities would help needy travelers:
“There was a long tradition of providing inns or other forms of lodging for travelers at the expense of the community. Sometimes there was a suitable building adjacent to the synagogue; sometimes the community financed private lodgings.”
During the Middle Ages, the compassion of the Jews to needy travelers contrasted sharply with the attitude of many of their non-Jewish neighbors. For example, the book, “Social Administration, Including the Poor Laws,” by John Clarke, describes how the “Poor Law” of 16th century England punished poor travelers by branding them with the letter ‘V’, and assigning them as slaves to others. (Cited in “Permission to Receive”)
The Jewish devotion to tzedakah gained the admiration of good people in other societies. For example, George Cooper Pardee, a progressive governor of California in the early 20th century, once said, “The Jew takes care of his own poor and helps to care for other peoples' poor.” (From “The Jew and Civilization” by Ada Sterling, page 121 - cited in “Permission to Receive”)
There is a tradition that at the dawn of the messianic age, our people will serve as a universal social model of tzedakah in the Land of Israel. In this age, proclaimed the Compassionate One, “Nations will walk by your light” (Isaiah 60:3). And what is the light that will attract the nations? The Midrash answers:
“It is the light of tzedakah, as it is written (Malachi 3:20), ‘But to you who are in awe of My Name, the sun of tzedakah will shine.’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers, B'ha'aloscha 8)
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
An ancient example of negative pride is mentioned in the prophecy of Ezekiel, where the Compassionate One admonishes our people not to emulate the sinful pride of Sodom - a selfish and corrupt society which was destroyed in the era of Abraham and Sarah:
“Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, an abundance of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy. And they were haughty, and they committed an abomination before Me, so I removed them in accordance with what I saw.” (Ezekiel 16:49,50)
This prophecy is teaching us that a pride which leads to selfishness is not a positive form of pride; on the contrary, it is considered to be “an abomination before Me.” As the Ramban (Nachmanides) writes in his commentary on Sodom:
“The reference (in Genesis 13:13) to their ‘being very wicked and sinful towards Hashem exceedingly’ is to the fact that they rebelled in their prosperity and persecuted the poor, as Ezekiel states: ‘And they were haughty and committed an abomination before Me.’ According to our sages, they were notorious for every evil, but their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and the needy. They were continually guilty of this sin, and no nation could be compared to Sodom for cruelty.” (Commentary on Genesis 19:5)
We, the people of the Torah, are to serve as a contrast to Sodom, as the Compassionate One said about Abraham, our father: “For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing tzedakah and justice” (Genesis 19:19).
For further study, visit the archive of our tzedakah articles on our website: