The Talmud (Sotah 5a) discusses at length the vice of arrogance. Arrogance is intolerable. Arrogance results in an early death. Short of death, arrogance diminishes one’s character. Arrogance can jeopardize the possibility of resurrection. And yet, one late second century scholar, Rav, is reported to have said that “a scholar ought to have one eighth of one eighth,” meaning that some arrogance is necessary.
Rav’s teaching raises at least two questions. First, why does Rav use such a cryptic expression? And second how can Rav justify the iconoclastic position that some measure of arrogance – at least among scholars – is welcome? The answer to both questions comes by way of Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi Brandwein of Stratyn (d. 1844), a great mystical teacher of considerable renown whose came to Palestine and perpetuated his dynasty.
Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi comments that Rav is not referring to a measure of arrogance but to a model of modesty. And that model is none other than the patriarch Jacob. Anticipating his encounter with his estranged brother Esav, Jacob sends gifts in the hope of averting confrontation. Jacob also prays to God, claiming that he is not worthy of all the mercies God had performed for him to date, even as he asks for divine protection again. The Hebrew word with which his plea begins is “Katonti” (Genesi 32:11), literally, “I am small (in merit).” In a remarkable demonstration of mastery of the Biblical text, Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi points out that this critical word appears in the eighth verse of the eighth portion of the Book of Genesis. Rav, according to Rabbi Yehudah Tzvi, had already made the same calculation. That is what he means by an eighth of an eighth.
Hence, Rav was not an outlier disputing all the other sages on the evils of arrogance. Rather, he was in agreement. Rav was saying that if we look to Jacob the Patriarch, we find a perfect example of humility, the opposite of arrogance. No matter how meritorious we think ourselves to be, we must never allow ourselves to voice it. Like Jacob we should see ourselves as unworthy for to do otherwise would be unbecoming. Let others sing our praises. But let us resist doing so ourselves.