Monday, September 17, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Mon., Sept. 17th)


To this point we have spoken about humility in our thoughts. We will now concentrate upon humility in our actions, which can be divided into four subsections: conducting oneself in a humble manner; enduring insults; detesting power and avoiding honor; and attributing honor to others.

The first-- conducting oneself in a humble manner-- should show in your speech, the way you walk, the way you sit, and in all of your movements. Regarding how it should show in your speech our sages said, "One's speech with others should always be gentle" (Yoma 86a). The Torah explicitly says, "The words of sages will be heard when said gently" (Ecclesiastes 9:17). Your words should be words of respect rather than castigation. So too it says, "One who castigates his neighbor is heartless" (Proverbs 11:12), and "When an evil person comes, castigation comes with him" (Proverbs 18:3). Regarding the way you walk, our sages said, "Who is a person of the world to come?-- the humble and bent-of-knee who enter humbly and exit humbly" (Sanhedrin 88b), who do not walk with a haughty stance or with great dignity, heel to toe, but rather like those who just go about their business. They also said, "Whoever walks with a haughty stance is considered to be one who pushes away the feet of the Divine Presence" (Kiddushin 31a). It is written, "The high ones of stature shall be hewn down" (Isaiah 10:33). Regarding the way you sit-- your place should be amongst the lowly and not amongst the proud. Here too we find an explicit verse in the Torah that says as much: "Do not give yourself airs before a king, and do not stand in the place of the greats" (Proverbs 25:5). Our sages said, "Move two or three places down from your regular place and then sit so that they would sooner say to you, 'Move up!' rather than, 'Move down!'"(Vayikra Rabbah 1:5). Our sages said about those who humble themselves, "Whoever humbles himself for the sake of Torah in this world is made great in the World to Come" (Baba Metziah 85b). Corresponding to this they said, "It is written, 'Take off our turban, and lift off your crown' (Ezekiel 21:31) which is to say, whoever is great in this world is lowly in the World to Come" (Yalkut Yechezkel 361). From this we can extrapolate the opposite, that whoever is lowly in this world will enjoy his hour of greatness in the world to come. It has been said, "Man should always learn what to do from the reasoning of his Maker. The Holy One (blessed be He) rejected all the other mountains and hills, and had His Divine Presence dwell on Mount Sinai (because of its humble stature)" (Sotah 5a). Our sages also said, "It is written, '...of the remnant of His inheritance' (Micha 7:18) refers to one who considers himself to be scattered remains" (Rosh HaShannah 17b).

The second aspect is the endurance of insult. That just-mentioned verse from Micha begins with, "Whose transgressions does He bypass? -- those of the ones who overlook transgressions against themselves...." It is also said, "It is written regarding those who take insult but do not insult back, who are abused and do not respond in kind, "So may Your enemies, G-d, be destroyed, while those that love You come to be like the sun in full strength" (Judges 5:31) (Shabbat 88b). It is said regarding the humility of Baba ben Butah, "A man of Babylon left to go to Israel to get married. He told his wife to cook something for him and to break it over the top of the gate (the "baba" in Aramaic). Baba ben Butah was presiding over the court at the time. The woman came to him and broke what she had over his head. He said, 'What have you done!?' And she said, 'My husband told me to do that!' To that he responded, 'Since you are doing the will of your husband, may G-d provide you with two sons like Baba ben Butah'" (Nedarim 66b). Our sages spoke as well about the humility of Hillel: "Our Rabbis taught that one should always be as humble as Hillel" (Shabbat 30b). Despite all of his modesty, Rabbi Abahu found that he could not in all honesty be called modest. He said, "I used to think that I was modest, but when I saw Rabbi Abbah from Acco not get angry when he said one thing and his spokesman said another instead, I realized that I was not humble" (Sotah 40a).

Regarding detesting power and avoiding honor the Mishna explicitly states, "Love doing the work but detest the power" (Pirke Avot 1:10). It is also said, "One who swells with pride upon tending legal decisions is a fool, an evil person and a braggard" (Pirke Avot 4:9); "Honor flees from whoever pursues it" (Eruvin 13b); "It is written, 'Do not fall into argumentation easily' (Proverbs 25:8), and that means to say do not run after power. Why? Because what will you do after that? -- they will come to you the next day with questions and you will not have answers for them" (Pesikta Rabbati); "Rabbi Menachamah said in the name of Rabbi Tanchum, 'Whoever assumes power in order to derive personal benefit from it is like an adulterer deriving pleasure from the woman's body alone'" (Pesichta Rabbati); and, "Rabbi Abahu said in the name of G-d, 'I am called Holy. You should not accept authority upon yourself if you do not have all the traits attributed to Me'" (Pesichta Rabbati). The students of Rabbi Gamliel are a case in point. Because of their poverty they were very needy, yet they never wanted to assume roles of authority. This is what was being referred to in the section called "The annointed priest": "Do you imagine I am giving you authority? I am giving you servitude!" (Horayot 10a). Our sages also said, "Authority is woesome-- it buries its carriers" (Pesachim 87b). "How do we know that authority buries its carriers? -- from Joseph's case: he died before his brothers because he conducted himself with authority" (Berachot 55a).

The point of the matter is that authority is nothing but a great burden on the backs of those who bear it. While you are an individual among many, you are subsumed in the many, and are only responsible for yourself. But when you are put into a position of authority and power, you are in the clutches of everyone under you, for you have to be responsible for them-- to show them the way and to correct their actions, for if you do not, "The sin is on your heads" (Deuteronomy 1:13), as our sages point out (Devarim Rabbah 1:10). Honor is vanity of vanities, and has a man challenge his own judgments as well as those of his Creator, and to forget his obligations (Devarim Rabbah 1:10). One who recognizes this will certainly be disgusted by it and grow to hate it. The very praises lauded on him by others will burden him. He will see them lavish praise upon him inappropriately, and he will be abashed and full of grief not only for the fact that his many faults so outnumber his good points, but that he is being further burdened with false praise so that he might be even more embarrassed.

The fourth subsection involves attributing honor to others. And so we learn, (Pirke Avot 4:1) "Who is honorable? -- one who honors others." Our sages also said, (Pesachim 113b) "From where do we learn that if you know that your friend is greater than you in some way that you must pay him homage?..."; (Pirke Avot 4:15) "Be the first to say hello (when meeting with others)."; and they said (Brachot 17a) that no one-- not even a non-Jew in the marketplace-- ever had a chance to say hello to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai before he said it first. The point is, you have to honor others, whether you do it through speech or action. Our sages warned us (Yevamot 62b) that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died because they did not honor each other. Just as castigation is connected with evil-doers, as the aforementioned verse says, (Proverbs 18:3) "When an evil person comes, castigation comes with him", honor is connected with the righteous. Honor dwells with them and never leaves them. The verse reads, (Isaiah 24:23) "Honor faces His elders."


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman