Honorable Humility

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Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            One of the verses in Parshat Beha’alotcha describes Moshe as being exceedingly anav/humble. Since Moshe himself wrote the Torah, ask our commentators, how could he, in all humility, write that he was humble? What, in fact, is humility? Should it be mean not acknowledging one’s talents and skills? Rashi’s explanation of anav as shafel vesavlan/low and enduring, patient, tolerating also needs further exploration and examination, especially since anivut/humility is considered to be the highest form of praise for an individual. Its antithesis is ga’avah/haughtiness.

            Unfortunately, we have no clear definitions of these terms and, like an insidious disease, we may not recognize the invasion of ga’avah until it reaches dangerous levels, writes Rabbi Friedlander z”l, in his sefer, the Sifsei Chaim. The yetzer horo loves haughty people. Haughtiness leads to feelings of superiority over others, to forgetting Hashem and attributing all your accomplishments to your personal effort. When you become so full of yourself, you leave no room for Him. If you leave no room for Hakodosh Boruch Hu, why should He leave room for you? [If your sense of anochi/self, ego fills you so completely, you leave no room for the ultimate Anochi, Hashem Elokecha. CKS] We have claimed to be the ones in control, not Hashem. This mindset creates stress in our lives and antagonism toward others whom we may blame for interfering or somehow placing obstacles in our path for success. If, on the other hand, we accept and constantly acknowledge that Hashem is in control, we do not always sweat our failures as “our fault”, but understand that this is God’s will for us. Nor are we jealous of the success of others. It is God’s will for them and has nothing to do with us. We can relax; God is in control.

            As Rabbi Yoffe zt”l explains, haughtiness is rooted in falsehood, while humility is rooted in truth. Haughtiness leads to a sense of false entitlement based on personal ego, while humility understands that whatever I have is a gift from God, and therefore is all that I need to fulfill my mission.

            There is a further falsehood, notes the Sifsei Chaim. Haughtiness is based on a faulty yardstick. People tend to be biased in their own favor. When we analyze ourselves, we tend to magnify our positive attributes and minimize the negative ones. On the other hand, when we judge others, we do the reverse. We tend to magnify their faults and minimize the positive traits. Every person has both strengths and weaknesses. Why do some people have their noses in the air, looking down on others? Because they are trying to balance a fickle straw of ego on their noses and trying to keep that ego from falling. If they take that straw off, they will walk normally and be able to see themselves and others more honestly. We will be able to judge ourselves not by how we measure up to others, but how we measure up to the unique gifts and talents Hashem has given us.

            In an interesting analogy, the Sifsei Chaim writes that if someone walks through a mental hospital, does he pride himself on his sanity or appreciate the gift of mental health? No. In that situation, he considers his mind no more a part of his normal self than he does his arms, legs, or eyes. Similarly, one should appreciate the positive gifts, talents, skills, and characteristics that Hashem has given him that make him unique. When we have specific skills, we are meant to use them to their full potential. The scholar should reach his full potential in learning or teaching, while the excellent cook may devote her energy to preparing meals for people in need, and the wealthy may live a modest lifestyle but be great supporters of worthy causes and people in need. (May the neshamah of Jean Gluck, Gittel Malka bas Mordechai, supporter of Beit El and many other causes, have an aliyah, and may her husband Eugene Gluck be healthy and able to continue their good work until 120. Her leveyah/funeral took place on Sunday c.k.s..)

            The Gemorrah presents an insightful metaphor. When one shakes a tzedakah box with only a few coins, it rattles and makes a lot of noise. However, if you shake a full tzedakah box, it makes very little noise. So too it is with people. A person who is full of many good qualities and accomplishes much has no need to boast. He feels fulfilled. But a person who feels empty inside makes a lot of noise about his few accomplishments to try to fill his emptiness. The humble does not pride himself on all he has or all he has done. He recognizes that all these are facts, like having arms and legs, writes Letitcha Elyon, and is nothing to be prideful of.

            Does that mean that a person should deny who he is, how talented or skilled he may be? To do so would be evidence of either false modesty or low self- esteem, not true humility, writes Rabbi Pincus zt”l in Tiferet Shimshon. Think of it as a mirror. If a gadol hador whose face glows with the light of Torah were to stand in front of the mirror, the mirror would reflect that countenance with that light. The mirror would not foolishly believe that it contains that light within itself, for if the great man moves away, there is no image and no light emanating from the mirror itself. Similarly, each of us should view our unique attributes as reflections of the Giver Who has implanted these traits within us. As long as we see ourselves in His presence, the light shines through us; were we to remove ourselves from His presence, the reflection would be gone. Moshe Rabbenu saw himself as nothing because he saw himself as completely in God’s presence, a reflection of Hashem’s greatness.

            Contrast a human contractor with the Creator of the world, lehavdil. When a contractor wants to erect a building, he assembles all his materials, puts it all together, and when the structure is complete, he steps back, and the edifice stands on its own. Not so the Creator of the universe. The Ribbonoh shel olam does not abandon His “building”. He always stands with it, infuses it with His presence, for if He would leave for even an instant, the entire universe would cease to exist. Hashem is always with us. Tefillah/prayer is predicated on the idea that I only exist through Hashem’s presence. Every prayer has a response, although it may not be an immediate response. If a mirror decides to stop reflecting and tries to have an independent identity, it is no longer a mirror and ceases to exist. Similarly, if we stop reflecting the image of God within us, we too cease to exist. This is our challenge, always to be connected to Hakodosh Boruch Hu and remain a conduit for His light to be seen in the world.

            And herein lies the paradox, explains Rabbi Tatz in World Mask. As long a someone asserts his independence as a completely separate entity, he remains nothing, “a small bundle of protoplasm”. When he becomes part of a greater Existence, he achieves greatness in his own right as a human being. This was Moshe, the humblest of all men. As a result of annulling himself and living completely as a reflection of Hashem Himself, he achieved greatness in his own right.

            [Rabbi Moshe Miller makes a similar point in Rising Moon on Megillat Ruth. First, Ruth, by negating herself and her own ego to follow Naomi’s instructions (3:5) merits becoming the Mother of Royalty. In contrast, the closer redeemer who was afraid of losing his identity if he married Ruth in a levirate marriage/yibum, lost his identity, and his name has become synonymous with anonymity, Ploni Almoni/John Doe. Boaz, by initially relinquishing his rights to Ruth and to the property, also achieves immortality when the right and obligation to marry Ruth falls to him by default after Ploni’s refusal. CKS]

            Man is a conductor through which Hashem’s energy can pass through to the world, explains Rabbi Feuer in Letter of All Ages. Just as some materials are better conductors of electricity than others, so are some people better conductors of Hashem’s energy than others. When impurities such as haughtiness are present in a human being, he remains a poor conductor of Hashem’s energy, but when someone is humble and has removed the impurities of ego from his psyche, he becomes a superconductor. The light and energy that emanates from us, adds Rabbi Rivlin, is the breath of life God breathed into us at birth, and continues to shine forth as long as we don’t block it by building walls of ego. We want to keep that chen/favor that Hashem implanted within us pure and unadulterated, writes Rabbi Shmuelevitz z”l. We want to be a mirror, a reflection of the light emanating from Hashem’s eyes, as was Noach in the eyes of Hashem. He was a tzadik tamim/whole in his ways and righteous in his actions. Rashi interprets these words as Noach was of a humble spirit.

            As noted earlier, one becomes humble or haughty based on how he measure himself. Rabbi Feuer explains that a six foot man will always consider himself tall/high if he compares himself to a five foot person. But if he compares his height to that of the sun, he will realize he is quite low. Moshe Rabbenu did not compare himself to other human beings. Being always in God’s presence, he compared himself to God and always recognized how small he was in that comparison. Therefore, he remained the humblest of all men and appreciated how successful he was in doing God’s will, in being an eved Hashem.

            Rabbi Wolbe zt”l returns us to Rashi’s original translation of anav as shafel vesavlan/low, patient and enduring, tolerating. Basing his analysis on the words of Rabbi Simcha Zissel of Kelm z”l, Rabbi Wolbe z”l asserts that this is probably the most important characteristic a person can strive for, for it is the basis for so many more positive middot. With savlanut/patience, tolerance, we become kinder and softer, more accepting of others, less jealous. It allows us to build a society that functions harmoniously,(or at least relatively effectively) as we allow for individual differences without feeling superior to others. With the proper mindset, we will realize that every person is greater or better than myself in some way, and as such he deserves my respect. Further, notes Rabbi Kokos in Siach Mordechai, since we are each given those gifts which will help us achieve our potential and our personal mission, there is no reason to feel prideful in my gifts. More important is how am I using them in my mission to reflect God’s light. As we say every morning upon waking, Hashem has returned our souls to us, given us another day of life because He has tremendous faith in us and in our ability to accomplish our task for the day. His faith extends to myself and to all others to accomplish their missions. When we recognize the uniqueness of each individual, we tend to be more tolerant and patient of our differences and less haughty in believing that my way is always the only right way, adds Rabbi Wachtfogel z”l.

            Moshe Rabbenu appreciated every person because he recognized each person’s unique qualities and unique worth. He achieved his greatness mikal ha’adam asher ba’am/from every person in the nation. From seeing the worth of every individual within the nation, he himself remained humble writes Rabbi Finkel z”l.

            How can one achieve and retain humility? Rabbi Dovid Weinberger provides some steps one can take to approach that goal. First, reduce the illusion of grandeur by performing menial tasks. Nothing should be beneath your dignity, from taking out the trash to polishing someone else’s shoes. [When I gave birth to my second son, most-non essential hospital personnel were on strike. The local yeshivah high school sent boys to the hospital to help out with all the mundane tasks. Imagine my surprise to see young men, clearly religious, emptying the trash from the maternity bathrooms! Perhaps their Rebbeim were teaching their students humility as well as chesed. CKS]

            It would also be helpful to consult with others younger than oneself and take their advice seriously. Above all, know that you have never arrived at your destination, that you are constantly growing and learning from others.

            Within this definition of patience and tolerance, one must not forget to be tolerant of oneself, reminds us Rabbi z”l . Take your tasks on one step at a time, and accept that everything is a process. Accepting that fact teaches patience and humility. Realize that you are a receptacle, the mirror that continues to reflect God’s image and light, and serve Him with all the gifts He has bestowed upon you.

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