More Than a Superiority Complex

The term "inferiority complex" is one with which we are all familiar. There are individuals who are haunted and hampered by a lack of self-worth, a phenomenon which was noted by early 20th century psychologist Alfred Adler. It was he who coined the phrase "inferiority complex" to help describe the underlying factors involved in such a condition.

Adler also coined the twin phrase "superiority complex." This term characterizes individuals who have an inflated sense of self-worth. Such individuals are impressed with their own self-importance and think of themselves as being better than others. Adler, however, insisted that those of us who think of ourselves as superior are in truth compensating for deep-rooted feelings of inferiority. For Adler, this exaggerated sense of self-worth helps us defend against the feelings of inferiority which are unacceptable to our conscious selves. We focus on our self-importance because we are threatened by the feelings of inadequacy and impotency that we dare not face.

I have long found Adler's theory fascinating and have often wondered about the degree to which his concepts apply to the heroes and villains of the Bible. Was Moses, for example, the humblest of men, burdened by an "inferiority complex?" I think not. I prefer to believe that there is a fundamental difference between authentic humility and feelings of inferiority. A humble man knows very well that he has strengths and talents and skills. The fact that he does not boast about them publicly does not mean that he considers himself inferior.

What about the "superiority complex?" Are there characters in the Bible who were convinced that they were better than others? Here I respond with a resounding, "Yes." Numerous persons in our sacred scriptures considered themselves superior to others. Some of them went so far as to conceive of themselves as ubermenschen, as supermen. Friedrich Nietzsche, who introduced the term "ubermensch" into the world of literature, described such a person as "the ideal superior man who could rise above morality to create and impose his own values."

The Midrash Rabbah, based in part upon a passage in this week's Torah portion, Parshat Vaeira (Exodus 6:1-9:35), enumerates four biblical characters who imagined themselves as ubermenschen, believing that they were above conventional morality and could impose their values upon others. But the Midrash does not simply describe them as four individuals with "superiority complexes." Instead, the Midrash states: "There were four who considered themselves gods."

Who were these four individuals, these "gods," for whom even the status of "supermen" was insufficient?  The Midrash lists them: Hiram, King of Tyre; Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon; Pharaoh, King of Egypt; and Yoash, King of Judah. What do we know of these four men, and what may have led them to the preposterous assumption that they were superhuman, indeed divine?

The Midrash begins by quoting the specific references in the Bible to the claims that each of these four men made, asserting that they indeed were gods. And the Midrash demonstrates how all four met defeat and degradation. But the Midrash begs the question, "How could four intelligent men delude themselves in such an outlandish and brazen manner?"

This question is all the more relevant when asked of someone like Hiram of Tyre, who assisted King Solomon in constructing the first Holy Temple in Jerusalem. How could a man capable of such generosity and piety allow himself to believe that he was a god?

King Yoash is described in the Bible as an upright King and as a disciple of the High Priest Yehoyada. How did such a man yield to the foolish temptation of asserting his divinity? The 18th century rabbinic sage, Rabbi Yehonasan Eybeshutz, sharpens the question and asks in his commentary on the haftarot for Parshat Shekalim, "Did not Yehoyada teach the young king Yoash everything he needed to know? Did he not teach him not to dare think of himself as a god?"

Rabbi Eybeshutz' answer is an interesting one. He suggests that Yehoyada could anticipate many mistakes that the young king might eventually make, and he admonished him not to make those mistakes. But lo ala al da’ato—he could not ever imagine that a human being could make the mistake of thinking of himself as a god, so it never occurred to him to warn Yoash not to do so.

One approach to answering the puzzle of the grandiosity that leads some intelligent men astray is the insight of Alfred Adler, mentioned at the beginning of this essay. He believes that this "superiority complex" is a defense against an inner conviction of one's inferiority. Adler's theory, however, does not seem to fit the four biblical characters whom the Midrash enumerates. We find no trace of hidden "inferiority complexes" in the biographical material that the Bible provides us about Hiram, Nebuchadnezzar, Yoash, and Pharaoh.

I have found another approach to understanding this grotesque claim of divinity in the writings of a man named Rabbi Chaim Zeitchik, of blessed memory. Rabbi Zeitchik was a Holocaust survivor, and his exposure to suffering sharpened the skills he learned in the famed Yeshiva of Novardok, a yeshiva known for its emphasis on understanding the human psyche.

Rabbi Zeitchik teaches us that success in life is a spiritual test. Many people are so carried away by material success that they begin to believe that they have unusual powers. Some go far as to believe that these powers are supernatural. Some, like our four "heroes," come to believe that the success they have experienced is proof positive that they are gods, immune to failure and even immortal.

All four of these men were blessed with amazing success in the form of wealth, military power, and even artistic genius. The baby Yoash was hidden for the first seven years of his life in the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the Holy Temple, and he survived. This kind of success led him to believe that he was not only "untouchable," but that he was himself a god.

Rabbi Zeitchik provides examples of true spiritual heroes, individuals who passed the test of success in life, yet who did not fall prey to the delusion that they were gods. In fact, in spite of their material successes, they remained humble.

He draws upon a beautiful passage in the Talmud Tractate Hullin 89a, which reads in part: "The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said to Israel, ‘I admire you because even when I bless you with great success, you conduct yourself humbly. I gave great success to Abraham, and he said that he is but dust and ash; to Moses and Aaron, and they said that they were but nothing; to David, and he said that he was but a worm and not a man.’"

We often think of poverty and misfortune as tests of faith. Rabbi Zeitchik teaches us that wealth and good fortune are also challenges to our faith. The Midrash on this week's Torah portion lists four remarkably accomplished individuals who succumbed to "superiority complexes" of ludicrous dimensions. Each of us must learn to follow the path of those spiritual heroes who, when challenged with success in life, knew how to remain not only human, but humbly human.