For the week ending 19 February 2011 / 14 Adar I 5771

An Old Tune

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Donny

Dear Rabbi,

Growing up, I came from a very humble background. But I was always well-liked and seemed to get along with all different types of people. Because I became quite popular I was able to overcome a lot of the barriers to success that people from my background suffer. Over the years I have actually risen to somewhat of a prominent position. The problem is, I just found out recently that the people who work for me, who I thought liked and respected me, don’t feel as “positively” about me as I thought. When this dawned on me I took it pretty hard. What I want to ask is, How could this happen? I’ve always made a point of treating everyone so nicely. How could they turn on me?

Dear Donny,

It’s quite common that people from humble beginnings get along well with others. The reason for this is that they are generally unassuming, modest, ‘simple’ (in the good sense), and appreciative. These are all traits which make them non-threatening and easy to get along with.

I’m assuming these are the types of traits you had while growing up, and, together with your own personal charm, they endeared you to others. I imagine that in this way you were “promoted” through society stage-by-stage, people being pleased by your presence and refreshing character.

While I can’t know for sure what went wrong and when, perhaps at some point in your life you stopped being nice and easy to get along with because you were really like that, but rather in order to keep being promoted. This is a very subtle point, but, it’s possible that while you continued to think you were still being the same old likeable you, the new you was impersonating your old self for the purpose of self-advancement.

If this is in any way true, it is not genuine, and people perceive and are repulsed by falsity. That would explain why, despite the fact that you think you’re being just as nice and friendly to folks as ever, they don’t think very highly of you because they may see you as a fake.

Accordingly, what you have to do is spend a good long while thinking about who you really were, and getting back to basics. Stop pretending to be who you once were, and really genuinely and sincerely get back to caring for, and being interested in, people — for them and not for you. I’m sure you’ll see a real change for the better.

A story is told regarding a certain Jewish shepherd who tended his flocks while pastorally playing his flute throughout the countryside. His charm was made known to the king, who employed him as his royal shepherd. Over time, because of his very pleasant ways, he was continually promoted until he became a chief minister to the king himself. Jealous of his advancement, others slandered him to the king, accusing him of taking advantage of the king’s trust to steal the royal wealth.

Initially, the king refused to believe these tales of his beloved servant, but eventually ordered a search of the minister’s mansion. They went from room to room in search of evidence. After an exhaustive search, they finally came to one last unlocked door. The king demanded it be opened. The advisor demurred, saying he’s never let anyone enter that room. At the king’s insistence, the door was opened and inside the bare and simple room, there was nothing but a chair upon which rested shepherd’s clothing and a flute.

Perplexed, the king asked, “What’s the meaning of this?” The advisor humbly replied, “Master, in your mercy I have been elevated from a simple shepherd to your chief minister. As you promoted me, in order to avoid arrogance and ingratitude, I promised to myself that I would always remember my humble beginnings. Every day I enter this room for an hour of solitude when I remove my official garb, wear this simple tunic, and play pastoral melodies that remind me of who I really am. And all this, dear king, is in order to be able to serve you better.”

Although this beautiful and touching story is an analogy of the relationship between the Jewish people and G-d — our humble beginnings and His elevating us; and our observance of ancient practices and holidays recalling our inception as a nation — it nevertheless offers a very pertinent lesson for all of us how to conduct ourselves as we progress through life.

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