Human Pride: The Holy and the Unholy

Why were all the other creatures created before the human being? One answer can be found in the following teaching from the Talmud: The human being was created last, on the Eve of Shabbos, so that if he develops an arrogant mentality, they will say to him, "The mosquito was created before you!" (Sanhedrin 38a)

Dear Friends,

From the perspective of Jewish tradition, the trait of "pride" can be holy or unholy. What is a holy form of human pride? According to an English dictionary, one of the definitions of "pride" is, "a reasonable or justifiable sense of one's worth or position." According to this definition, a holy form of pride is when a person has a reasonable sense of his worth as a being created in the Divine image with the capacity to emulate the universal Divine love and compassion. An example of someone who had a holy form of pride was King Jehoshaphat, the ruler of Judah, as it is written: "His heart took pride in the ways of the Compassionate One" (I Chronicles 17:6).

An unholy form of human pride is when the human being become arrogant and perceives himself as God; thus, he also perceives himself as the owner and sovereign of the earth. The human being then feels free to exploit the earth and its creatures without any limitations. It is therefore written, "A haughty heart is an abomination to the Compassionate One" (Proverbs 16:5). Regarding the danger of such pride, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes:

"The human being's intellectual eminence poses the threat of pride: his power to dominate all things and to modify them according to his intentions, might make him think of himself as the master. He might come to forget God, to forget that everything belongs to Him and was lent to the human being only for a specific purpose; and he might thus come to usurp for himself the right to follow only his own will…At this point, the human being is reduced to the most dangerous beast of prey, for he is armed with intellect, and the world is not safe from his tyranny." (This quote is from Rabbi Hirsch's classical work, "The Nineteen Letters – Letter 5.)

The antitode to human arrogance and tyranny is the awareness of the Divine mandate which defines the purpose of the human being's creation as "lavdah ul'shamrah" - to serve and protect the earth and its creatures (Genesis 2:15). Through this mandate, explains Rabbi Hirsch, the Creator is conveying to the human being the following message:

"The earth was not created as a gift to you - you have been given to the earth, to treat it with respectful consideration, as God's earth, and everything on it as God's creation, as your fellow creature, to be respected, loved and helped to attain its purpose according to God's Will." (The Nineteen Letters - Letter 4)

When a human being becomes arrogant and does not fulfill his purpose within the creation, then even a mosquito – who is fulfilling its purpose within the creation – can become, in a certain sense, more important. The rabbis therefore teach: The human being was created last, on the Eve of Shabbos, so that if he develops an arrogant mentality, they will say to him, "The mosquito was created before you!" (Sanhedrin 38a)

In the spirit of the above teaching, the Midrash tells the following story:

Alexander the Great of Macedonia once came to the land beyond the dark mountains and sent for King Katzia. Alexander told the king that he came to learn how he judges disputes. And Alexander remained near the king in order to observe how he conducts his court.

One day a man came before King Katzia with a "complaint" against his fellow. He said, "This man sold me a ruin in which I found hidden treasure. I bought the ruin, however, and not the treasure. (Because he did not want to steal, he was reluctant to keep the treasure.)

The other man said, "I sold him the ruin and all its contents." (Due to his scrupulous honesty, he did not want to claim the treasure.)

King Katzia asked one of the disputants, "Do you have a son?" The man replied affirmatively. The king then asked the other disputant, "And do you have a daughter?" He too replied affirmatively. King Katzia then declared, "Let them marry one another, and divide the treasure between them!"

King Katzia noticed that Alexander seemed disturbed. "Did I judge unfairly?" he asked. "If this case came before the court in your country, how would it be decided?" Alexander replied, "The judge would condemn them both to death, and the king would keep the treasure."

The following exhange then took place between the King Katzia and Alexander:

"Does the rain fall in your country?" King Katzia asked.


"Does the sun shine upon it?"


"Do you have small cattle?"


King Katzia then declared, "It is only due to the merit of the small cattle that the sun shines and the rain falls upon your country. For the sake of the small cattle you are saved!"

The Midrash comments: Hence, it is written, "You save the human being and the animal, O Compassionate One" (Psalm 36:7). That is, You save the human being for the sake of the animal! (Genesis Rabbah 33:1 – Etz Yosef commentary)

The words, "You save the human being and the animal" are part of the Shabbos afternoon service, where we express our yearning for the unity of the messianic age. These words therefore remind us that the messianic unity includes all creatures within the Divine creation.

Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings and Comments:

1. The Prophet Jeremiah proclaimed the following Divine message: "Let not the wise one take pride in his wisdom, nor the strong one take pride in his strength, nor the rich one take pride in his riches. For only with this may one take pride - contemplating and knowing Me, that I am the Compassionate One Who does lovingkindness, justice, and righteousness on earth, for in these is My desire" (Jeremiah 9:22, 23).

2. In this letter, I gave a summary of the story which appears in the Midrash about Alexander and King Katzia. The longer version of the story can be found in "The Vision of Eden" by Rabbi David Sears. This book also points out that the land beyond the dark mountains where King Katzia ruled was probably in Africa (see Tamid 32a).

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