It is a paradox, really. People of real worth tend to have worth because of their belief in their unworthiness.
That's one of Moses's messages to the Israelites in this week's Torah portion, Eikev. Much of the book of Deuteronomy is Moses speaking to the people, giving them a pep talk if you will, attempting to relay the most important messages of the Israelite story so that they can take the wisdom learned with them as they enter the Promised Land. He knows he won't be able to go with them, so he attempts to share all he knows, giving them a foundation from which to build as they create their new society.
Moses also takes the opportunity to admonish the people, highlighting past mistakes and ensuring that they know that what they are about to receive, the Promised Land, was not in any way because they deserve it. In fact, Moses points out that they do not deserve it at all.
"And when the Eternal your God has thrust [the Anakites] from your path, say not to yourselves, 'The Eternal has enabled us to possess this land because of our virtues'; it is rather because of the wickedness of those nations that the Eternal is disposing them before you. It is not because of your virtues and your rectitude that you will be able to possess their country, but it is in order…to fulfill the oath that the Eternal made to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." (Deut. 9:4-5)
Why, in this pep talk, would Moses take this opportunity to so sternly rebuke the people? Much of what he discusses are things that these actual people did not do. Rather, it was their parents and grandparents who grumbled and complained in the desert. Why is it so important that these Israelites feel undeserving?
Perhaps Moses is attempting to instill humility and gratitude in the people so that they will be successful in the future. We know what happens when the Israelites arrogantly approach a task. Later in chapter 9, Moses retells the story of the building of the Golden Calf. The people thought they knew what to do, but instead built an abomination for which they were harshly punished. In the book of Numbers, the Israelites went to war with the Amalakites and Canaanites in order to make up for their lack of faith after the event with the spies, but they were terribly defeated because they went into battle without God's direction. When the Israelites approach their tasks with arrogance or too much self-assuredness, they have failed in detrimental ways.
Though, of course, arrogance and entitlement don't always lead to failure. There are plenty of individuals whose arrogance has enabled their success. However, their arrogance has also likely led to other people being taken for granted or dismissed. People too focused on what they do or what they deserve tend to ignore the needs and contributions of others. They do not see the help and support they have been given that made their achievements possible. Arrogance and entitlement lead to selfishness, which is never beneficial for society.
Moses does not want this for his people. He wants them to be grateful for what has been done for them, and humble in the face of the powers that have shaped their future. He wants them to feel small and unworthy because if they do, they will follow the commandments and fulfill their obligations.
This is a lesson for all of us. Humility and gratitude, it could be argued, are the most essential values. They are at the foundation of all things positive and good because they make us look outward, rather than inward. When we are humble, we realize how much we rely on others and on things that are not of our making. We know that we need others, we know how much of our lives are based on what others have done for us, rather than what we have accomplished for ourselves. Humility enables us to better see ourselves in the context of the whole, to know how very small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of life and history. And that humility feeds our sense of gratitude. Likewise, people who feel gratitude and express it to others tend to be kinder and more thoughtful people, aware of what happens around them, not just to them or for them. Grateful people do not take others or others' efforts for granted. Being aware of the work of others enables us to see the needs of others, as well. Humble and grateful people are better for the whole of humanity.
Moses hoped for good things for his people, the ones who stood before him, and the ones who live today. His message is to remember how much we have that is not about our actions or our virtue, to be humbled by what we experience, and be grateful to all those who make it possible. His message was simple: we are unworthy. And maybe, if we can fully receive that concept into our hearts and souls, and have our actions reflect that truth, we may find ourselves worthy after all.