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STAR STRUCK

by Yoel Spotts    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

". . .Look up towards the sky and count the stars, if you can. And He (G-d) said to him (Abraham), such will be your offspring" (Genesis 15:5).

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". . .Look up towards the sky and count the stars, if you can. And He (G-d) said to him (Abraham), such will be your offspring" (Genesis 15:5). On the simplest level, this verse is very easy to understand; it describes the promise that the Jewish people will multiply and grow far beyond our wildest dreams. However, we cannot ignore a point of curiosity: the comparison of the Jewish people to the stars in the sky. This being a verse from the G-d given Torah, we may safely assume that the analogy is not a trivial one. Rather, there must be some inherent similarity between the Jewish people and the stars. Interestingly, later on in history, Jacob received a similar promise albeit with a slight, yet important, deviation in terminology. We read " And I will place your progeny as the sands of the ocean that cannot be counted" (Genesis 32:13). Here the Jewish people are compared to sands of the ocean. Same promise, two different analogies. How are we to make heads or tails of these two verses and their implications?

Let us leave this topic for a moment and turn our attention to a seemingly unrelated subject. Contemporary psychological thinking contends that one of the most significant factors in a child’s development is his sense of self-esteem. Today’s psychologists would be pleased to know that the Talmudic sages shared their viewpoint, as we learn (Tractate Sanhedrin 37a) that a person must say, "The world was created for me." A person should hold himself in the highest regard. However, a statement in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:4) seems to fly right in the face of such an attitude: "Be of very, very low spirit." From this passage we understand that we should totally nullify and disregard ourselves. How are we to reconcile these two approaches?

The answer is that both attitudes are correct and necessary. Of course, a person must view himself as being of great self-worth. The greatest motivation is a sense of purpose in what one does. If a person understands that he plays a vital role in the advancement and development of Mankind, he certainly will place a great degree of significance and urgency in what he does. Every action takes on a whole new meaning. However, a person cannot become wrapped up in such an attitude. If he continues to tell himself he is the center of the universe, he will forget that others around him can also lay stake to such a claim. Thus, the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot warns us to maintain a very low spirit --so as not to become enveloped in conceit and pride.

On the flip side, a person cannot live a life of constant self-effacement. If a person thinks he is worthless, he begins to despair; losing all hope and sense of appreciation for his accomplishments. He begins to believe that Hashem no longer cares about him and what he does. His life becomes meaningless. Therefore, the sages enjoin us to remember that the world was created for each one of us. You posses the power to change the world. Thus, in truth, a balance is necessary for a true undertaking to live out Hashem’s will. One must indeed think that the world was created for him while at the same time tempering such an attitude with feelings of humility and submission.

With this understanding, we can better appreciate the comparison of the Jewish people to both the sands of the ocean and the stars in the sky. Pick up a grain of sand. Almost nothing is less significant or perceptible to the naked eye. Indeed, a Jew must at times make himself like the sand -- small and imperceptible. Now look up towards the stars. Outer space is so vast and expansive, we can hardly comprehend its size. Scientists throw around figures and numbers so immense, they boggle the mind. At times, one must imagine himself to be on the same magnitude as the stars in outer space -- so utterly tremendous as to be inconceivable. Thus, the Jewish people are indeed like both the sands of the ocean and the stars of the sky; we must find the balance between them.

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Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, writes from Baltimore.

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