Humility is Not Weakness

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06 Jun 2016

In the delightful book, “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery there is a scene in which the Little Prince takes credit for the sunrise itself, glorying in his work in bringing about the new day.  We find this scene charming because we recognize in the Little Prince the innocence and astonishment of childhood.   The delight in “causing the sun to rise” is wonderful in a child but it is tiresome and troubling when adults behave similarly.

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The bedouins tent in the sahara, moroccoAs we near the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the crowning event in the annals of our Peoplehood, the Giving of the Torah, we cannot help but think of Torah as spiritually uplifting and inspiring.  After all, Torah is the medium through which God communicates with mortal man.  It stands to reason that the more Torah we learn, know and understand, the more intimate our relationship with God; the more we study, the more uplifted and inspired.

And yet, Rav Chanan seems to turn this thinking on its head in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 26b), “why is Torah referred to as toshiya? Because it mateshes kocho shel adam – Torah wears man out, it weakens man’s strength.”

What?  Poll serious Torah learners and they will undoubtedly report that long sessions of learning leave them upbeat and exhilarated.  Hardly “weakened”.  They are exuberant, not toshiya.

What is Rav Chanan saying?  His comment has been troubling scholars for decades upon decades.  Over 90 years ago, a R’ Moshe Frankel from New York took pen to paper and wrote to my grandfather, Rav Bezalel Zev Shafran z’l asking him to please explain to him what Rav Chanan meant by his astonishing statement.  R’ Frankel could not imagine how Torah could be exhausting.  He could not understand how the labor of learning – unlike physical labor – could be anything but pleasant and wholesome.

In response, my grandfather offered a novel interpretation of the comment (included in his Responsa R’baz, 3rd volume – Siman 40).  I present it here with the fervent prayer that his Torah continues to be passed down and learned by my children, grandchildren and beyond.

His response to R’ Frankel begins with a citation of the Chavos Da’as on the verse in Bereishis (18:4) in which Abraham greets the three “guests” who came to visit soon after his bris.  As the visitors approached, Abraham extends every lavish courtesy to them, establishing our understanding of Hachnasat Orchim.   He says to them, yukach nah meat mayim v’rachatzu ragleichem – let water be brought and wash your feet.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia) quotes the guests, “Do you suspect that we are Arabs who worship the dust of their feet – ragleihem?” The Chavos Da’as reminds us that Rambam argues that the word regel   used in Torah does not denote “foot/feet” but “cause” as in the verse where Yaakov speaks directly and honestly to Laban, telling him not to exaggerate his worth and accomplishments, because what he has is because God blessed you l’ragli – because of me.  Here it is clear that “regel” is the cause; God is saying “I am the regel”, I am the cause for your abundance.

Similarly, the Arviim believed that their parnasa, their material accomplishments, came about as a result of their ragleiem – they believed that they were the cause for all they had and accomplished.  Like the Little Prince, they believed that the sun rose by their smarts, toil, strength and hard work.  But Abraham set them straight.  He tells them to “wash your ragleichem”.  He tells them to cleanse themselves of the foolishness of bowing down and worshipping the dust of your own doings!  Never think, even for a moment, that all you have is a result of your doing!  For the one who fails to recognize that all s/he has emanates from the First Cause has toiled for naught.

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My grandfather teaches that now we can well understand Rav Chanan.  Whether through the innocence of youth or the arrogance of age, most who experience success claim responsibility for that success.  Without shame they declare, “kochi v’otzem yadi asah li et kol ha’chayil ha’zeh – It’s my doing; my strength and prowess has allowed me to accumulate all of this wealth….”

“It’s all me!”  So they believe, never giving a thought that were it not for the will of God their toil and effort would be in vain.  They remain blind to the truth that success and failure, like the rising and falling of the sun, is a turning wheel.  One invariably follows the other.

But the one endowed with the wisdom of Torah, the spirit of God and yiras shomayim, the one who knows that it is God who grants him the koach la’asos chayil, the strength to succeed, he is the one rooted in truth.  It is this man who readily admits and proclaims that Torah is toshiya.  Why?  Because it mateshes his strength.  He knows it is not Torah learning that saps his strength or beats him down.  Rather, as we learn from Abraham’s lesson to his guests, Torah teaches us not to attribute our success to our own strength.  Therefore, the Torah’s outlook about parnasa detracts from/is mateshes one’s strength, meaning one’s belief that his strength is the cause for his success.

Yes, Torah beats down on me (mateshes).  Why?  So that I do not attribute my success to my own doing.  To the student of Torah, “koach” does not mean strength (kochi v’otzem yadi – my strength) but to one’s sense of self.  A student immersed in Torah will ultimately come to the realization that his entire existence and being depends solely on God.

As my grandfather concludes, “the holy ones among Israel believe in the First Cause, the Master Lord God, blessed be His name…”

The innocent and arrogant believe in themselves.  The wise and the holy believe in God.


My grandfather’s own words in the PDF below:

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