|If you want to know how power effects even our most mundane choices, you need go no further than the “Cookie Monster Study,” done by Dr. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at Berkeley. Here’s how he describes it. We bring three people to the lab, and we randomly assign one person to the role of leader. We say you’re in charge, and then over the course of the experiment, these three students have to write policies for the university. They bring together facts, they write policies, they submit them, and we gather these written products. Half-way into the experiment, we bring a plate of five delicious chocolate chip cookies. We put them down and that’s actually where the experiment really begins. So everybody takes a cookie. They eat very happily and are grateful for it. All groups leave one cookie on the plate because they don’t like to take that last cookie, because you don’t want to be the person who takes the last piece of food. So, the key question is who takes that fourth cookie, and indeed, it’s our person in the position of power who reaches out and grabs the cookie and says that’s mine. Keltner notes that when people are in a position of power, chemicals in the brain fight their sense of humility and lead them to act in ways that can cause them to abuse their power. Compare this with Moses, who was asked by the Almighty to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt;Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” And He said, “For I will be with you, and this is the sign for you that it was I Who sent you. When you take the people out of Egypt, you will worship G-d on this mountain.” (Exodus 3:11-12) Why was Moses hesitant and what was G-d’s response? Moses was known for his humility, which was expressed here in two ways. He saw himself as unworthy of encountering Pharaoh (Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh). Additionally, he was able to see the greatness of the Jewish people and their being deserving of a great leader (Who am I…to take the children of Israel out of Egypt). G-d responded to both points: I will be with you.Meaning: (1) You will not be the one talking to Pharaoh and (2) I, not you, will be taking the Jewish people out of Egypt. Moses was truly humble; he really thought he was not up for the job and it is precisely because of his genuine humility that he was chosen as a leader. What is humility and why is it so important? Not taking the last cookie is admirable, but in Jewish consciousness, humility is not merely admirable, it’s viewed as one of the greatest character traits a person can possess. How do you know if you are being humble and not deceiving yourself? Maybe you are simply having false thoughts of humility. There’s an easy way to tell. If your thinking is characterized by feelings of insignificance, it’s weakness, not humility. To the contrary, real humility leads one to feeling alive, take responsibility, and having possibilities. The result of humility…is life. (Proverbs 22:4) Moses is the case in point. He is referred to as being extremely humble, yet at the same time he is a man of action, one who was willing to go head to head with the most powerful man (Pharaoh) on earth. Rav Shimhon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), commenting on the verse above, explains how humility works. In the highest selflessness lies the greater power. Ultimately, neglect of duty is due to selfishness. Because of selfishness we omit the good and commit the bad. Selfishness makes us shrink from the fulfillment of our life task. But the humble person with integrity has no trace of selfishness; his self-sacrifice is not obstructed by egotism…His entire sojourn on earth, regardless of the length of its duration, is true living. When he has departed from this world, one may say of him: he was alive.Moses is our model for humility; it’s no coincidence that he was a man of action because with more selflessness lies greater power. If we find ourselves neglecting the good we are capable of, it is due to selfishness because it causes us shrink from the fulfillment of our life-task. Sometimes we refrain from taking on a project or volunteering because we say we’re not capable of what is being asked of us but the reality (we may be petrified to face) is that we are afraid of failure (and looking bad) or hesitant because we don’t want our lifestyles cramped. Although we say, “I’m not the person for this job,” the reality might be you can do it but are choosing not to. Most of the time we’re not being asked to do something beyond our means, like running a 4-minute mile, but we are being asked to run a mile and for whatever personal reason (fear, failing, laziness) we don’t want to. We’re not being humble, just selfish. As such, instead of using the opportunity to prosper and/or help others, we are acting like the cookie monster. Moses’ humility was real; he truly believed he was not worthy of the task—but he didn’t let that deter him. He did what was asked and, consequently, was one step further in fulfilling his life’s purpose and calling. The next time you are asked to do something that is out of your comfort zone, it behooves you to think of Moses and how he, when he embraced the challenge, altered the course of human history forever after. Our actions might not be of such grand proportion but that shouldn’t let us deny ourselves and others the outcomes of the mitzvot-significant actions-that are in our power to do.
(Sources: The Science Behind Why Power Corrupts and What Can Be Done to Mitigate It by Dacher Keltner; Kli Yakar , Meshech Chochma, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Wisdom of Proverbs, pp.200-1)
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