Shemini: The Power of Humility

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23 Mar 2011

“Rav, we beseech you,” the townspeople of Simonia called out, approached Rav Yehuda HaNassi. “Rav, send us someone to lead us, to teach us Torah, and to take care of our needs. Send us someone like you.”

To this request, Rav Yehuda HaNassi “Gave them Levi bar Sisi.”

The people of Simonia were thrilled by news that their spiritual leader would soon be among them. In anticipation, they constructed a large bimah, with a throne-like chair upon which Levi bar Sis would sit. When he arrived, they placed him upon that chair, and praised him with all manner of praise; so happy were they to have him amongst them.

Soon, they began to approach him with their she’eilot. She’eilot about the parshiyot, about halachic concerns, about wedding matches. One after the other, the townspeople approached. And each left again without an answer. For throughout all the questions, Levi bar Sisi remained silent.

“Rav Yehuda!” they cried, “Is this how you satisfy our request?”

Rav Yehuda was confused. “Bring him here,” he suggested.

Rav Yehuda sat down with Levi bar Sisi and softly asked him one question after another and Levi bar Sisi answered each question in a thoughtful, scholarly and pious manner.

“Why did you not answered when asked by the townspeople?” Rav asked, astonished that his experience could be so different than that of the people of Simonia.

“They made me this huge bimah and sat me upon it,” Levi said sadly. “I became so enthralled by my own self importance, I could not function properly.”

So it was with Aharon Hakohen.

At the consecration of the Mishkan, Moshe publicly proclaimed that Aharon had been divinely appointed as Kohen Gadol. At the same time, specific instructions were given to the Kohen Gadol – and no one else. As Rashi explains, although the elders were present, they were only present to serve as witnesses that it was G-d Himself who appointed Aharon. This lest someone suspect the appointment to be politically motivated or personally favored by Moshe.

Despite all this, like Levi, Aharon remained reticent when the time came to discharge his duties as Kohen Gadol.

“Approach the altar,” Moshe prompted him, “and prepare your sin and burnt offerings.”

Certainly, Aharon was not confused as to his tasks. They had been assigned by HaShem Himself! Rather, Aharon was humbled by the awesome tasks before him. Shehaya Aharon bosh ve’yarei lageshet.

Did not Moshe understand Aharon’s fear and trembling? After all, Moshe himself tried to turn away from his calling at the Burning Bush. “I am not the speaker for this task!” he had protested. Why would he push his brother on when he knew precisely the feelings in his brother’s heart?

In truth, it was because he understood so well that he continued to prompt his brother. “Approach the altar, for you were chosen. Embolden yourself and come do your priestly activities. The one endowed with true humility is best suited to serve G-d.”

The Baal Shem Tov suggested that Moshe’s counsel was essential to Aharon’s role. “Why are you withdrawn, submissive and unassuming? LeKach nivecharta. It is precisely because you possess these qualities that you were chosen to assume the most exalted religious position.

“Humility is the prerequisite for genuine spirituality.”

The Baal Shem Tov taught that modesty, submission, self-abasement and meekness are true paths to G-dliness. These lead to our recognition of why we always need Him. Humility sharpens our focus on our fragile existence while, at the same time, prodding our intimacy with G-d. Humility makes us prayerful. Indeed, that very humility which left Aharon inhibited, bosh and insecure is the very quality which prompted him to perform the Avodah so zealously. This bosh motivates Aharon in the next pasuk, “and Aharon went up to the altar.”

The Talmud teaches that humility results in the “fear of sin.” For the truly pious, fear of sin is the prelude for all that is G-dly. That said, humility does not come naturally to us. True humility is not a mere “absence” – an absence of arrogance or haughtiness. Rather, it is a fullness of the gentleness and piety that comes from a true fear of sin. Humility is not a single act but a stance, an approach to life which encompasses every aspect of human thought and behavior.

Though we are created in the image of G-d, we are also formed from the clay of the earth. Whatever we do, wherever we turn, sin, error and failure await us.

Aharon stood as the Kohen Gadol and yet, he would forever remain humbled by his crushing failure at the altar of the golden calf. Lekach nivecharta, Moshe responded to Aharon’s reticence. It was precisely because of his remembrance of his dreadful sin that he was most worthy to stand in the service of G-d. For that remembrance inspired the humility which made him great.

Only the truly humble can be made great. And only he who has sinned can know humility. Maharitz teaches that it was because he sinned that Aharon was Divinely ordained to serve as Kohen Gadol. Otherwise, how would it be possible for him to personally identify with the humbled sinner’s need for atonement without having personally experienced the humbling need for forgiveness?

“Why are you ashamed of the golden calf?” Moshe asked Aharon. Lekach nivecharta. “You were granted the humbling opportunity to sin, so that you would then be able to atone for all sinners.”

Humility raises up, while pride only serves to bring down.

So it is that we learn of the farmer who went with his son into the wheat field to see if it was ready for harvest.

“See, father,” exclaimed the boy, “how straight these stems hold up their heads! They must be the best ones. Those that hang their heads down, I am sure, cannot be too good.”

The older farmer smiled knowingly at his son. Then he plucked a stalk of each kind and said, “See here, my son. This stalk that stood so straight is light headed and almost worthless, while this that hung its head so modestly is full of the most beautiful grain.”

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s Vice President of Communications & Marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.