The Pharaoh Within


Shira and I have a first cousin who lives in Israel who recently celebrated his 60th birthday.  Shira happened to have been in Israel at the time and was able to attend his birthday party.  Surrounded by his large and loving family, her cousin Alan observed that when he turned 50, there were 11 people in his immediate family—he and his wife, their 7 children, one of whom was married and had a child, their first and at the time only grandchild.  One decade later, there are now 31 people in his family, as most of his children got married and started having children.  His fifties were a blessed decade, filled with weddings and births, which resulted in 20 new family members.  On Friday night around the Shabbat dinner table, it takes him 20 minutes to bless all of his children and grandchildren.

Happy as that news is, if we are entirely honest about it, it also presents a spiritual challenge.

If I compare myself, in my 50s, to my first cousin in his 50s, I am not going to have 18 grandchildren, so comparing myself gives me no peace.

We all have our own version of this.  Somebody else has what we don’t have.

The phrase “comparison trap” was coined by Andy Stanley, and it refers to that propensity that we all have to compare ourselves to others.  How am I doing in life?  How is my family doing? How are my kids doing?  Are we okay?  All too often, we answer that question by looking at the person to our right or to our left.  That never ends well, because as Andy Stanley pointed out, there will always be somebody who is happier, healthier, richer, smarter, who are getting more nachus from their children, than we are.  As he puts it, there is no win in comparison.

There is no win in comparison.  We know this.  Yet we do it anyway.  We know it is not good for us, and we can’t help ourselves.  How do we not fall into the comparison trap?

In his book The Heart of Torah, Rabbi Shai Held quotes Abraham Joshua Heschel who points out that the first commandment is “I am the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.”  The tenth commandment is “You shall not covet…anything that is your neighbor’s.” What is the connection?

Heschel’s answer is that in the first commandment God freed us from political oppression, from the Pharaoh without.  In the tenth commandment we have to free ourselves from the Pharaoh within, from that voice which covets what our neighbor has, from that voice which says I cannot be at peace because I am always comparing myself to others.  God cannot free us from our internal Pharaoh.  We have to free ourselves.

How do we do it?  The secret is buried in a Hasidic parable.

There was a rebbe named Zusya who, at the end of his life, was sobbing.   His disciples were confused.  Why was he crying?  He had led an exemplary life. He had a close family. He was a man of integrity.  Yes he was soon to pass, but he surely knew that nobody, not even Moses, gets to live forever.  Why was he weeping?

Zusya explained that he was weeping for he feared a question that God would ask him in heaven.  God was not going to ask him why were you not as wise as Solomon, as poetic as David, as scholarly as Maimonides.  Rather, God was going to ask him: why were you not the best Zusya you could be?  Why were you not the best version of yourself?

That would be his question in heaven.   That is all of our question right now.

This parable contains the secret to how we get out and stay out of the comparison trap.  Zusya’s job was not to be as wise as Solomon, as poetic as David, as learned as Maimonides. Zusya’s job was to be the best Zusya he could possibly be.  Perhaps he sobbed because he was not sure that he was able to be the best version of himself.  Yes, maybe his disciples thought he had led an exemplary life.  But that is on the outside looking in.  Nobody knows what goes on inside somebody’s heart.  In this story Zusya is dying.  He knows what’s wrong. His disciples don’t, but he does. He also knows that he has run out of time to get it right.  The Zusya story is fundamentally about the very scary subject of running out of time to fix what we, in our heart, know needs to be fixed.

The Zusya story is old and familiar, but I saw it an entirely new light when, just recently, I met with a person who was not weeping as he faced the end of his life.  He was deeply at peace. When I asked him to reflect upon his life, it was so revealing.  He did not say anything about this friend had more money, that friend was thinner or more handsome, that person went on better vacations, this person had a nicer house, that person had a fancier job, this person had so many children, that person so many grandchildren.  The lives of others did not factor into the conversation at all.

Rather, he talked about what was right with his life: I loved. I was loved. I cared about important values. I worked to advance those values.   There are people whom I loved, and whom I taught, that will carry on this work.

In dying this wonderful man illustrated a truth about living:   Our life is about our life, not about the life of others.

Zusya ran out of time to get it right and wept.  This man got it right and was profoundly at peace.

Which made me think more deeply about my first cousin Alan and the 18 grandchildren born to him in his 50s.  I can be truly at peace and happy for him because his family is not what I need to be working on.  Like all of us here,  I need to be working on me, my family, this community, the place where I live and the people with whom I live.  What is right needs to be deepened. What is wrong needs to be made right. And the time we all need to do this important work is now, before we run out of time.

Please rise.