Sunday, September 16, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Sun., Sept. 16th)


We have already spoken of the disgrace of arrogance, from which you can infer the praiseworthiness of humility. We will now focus more on humility itself and will, as a result, come to understand arrogance.

The general rule in regard to humility is that you should not consider yourself important for whatever reason whatsoever. That is the very opposite of arrogance. What results from it will be diametrically opposite to what would result from arrogance as well. Careful scrutiny will further reveal that humility is dependent upon both thought and action. You must first be humble in thought, and only then can you act humbly. If you are not humble in thought and you want to act humble, you will wind up being one of the previously referred-to "so-called humble"-- the hypocrites who are the worst of all. We will now explain the various categories of being humble in thought and in action.

Humility in thought involves your reflecting upon and coming to realize the fact that praise and honor, and all the more so aggrandizement above other people, are not due you, for two reasons: because of what is necessarily imperfect in you, and because of things you have done in the past. As to what is lacking in you, it is obvious that it is impossible for a person not to have many faults, no matter how perfected he may be. Those faults may either be a result of his nature, because of family influence, because of circumstances, or because of certain of his own actions. For "No man is so righteous that he would do good and never sin" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). All these are inherent blemishes in a person that could never allow for self-aggrandizement. Even if you were an otherwise extraordinary person, your imperfections would be enough to overshadow your other traits.

The trait that would most likely bring you to arrogance and self-aggrandizement would be wisdom, as it is a personal trait that is in a special part of yourself, your mind. Yet there is no wise man who never makes a mistake and could not learn from his colleagues or even from his students often enough. In that case, how could you ever boast of your wisdom? Anyone with a good mind-- even one who merits to be a great and famous sage-- must admit, upon honest reflection and consideration, that there is no room for pride or self-aggrandizement. One whose intellect is greater than someone else's is only acting in a way that comes naturally to him, as a bird would just naturally fly and an ox would naturally be able to pull with his brute strength. If you are wise it is because you are that way by nature. And those who are not as natively wise as yourself at this point could very well train themselves to be as wise as you if they were of that nature. As that is the case, you have no reason to be proud or to boast. If you are a great sage, it is incumbent upon you to teach whoever may need your knowledge. And, as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai has said, "If you have learned a lot of Torah, do not laud yourself with it-- that is why you were created" (Pirke Avot 2:9). If you are wealthy, you should be pleased with your good fortune and come to the aid of one who does not have. If you are strong, you must help the defenseless and rescue the oppressed. To what is this analogous? -- to house-guards who are assigned to specific assignments. It is only right that they guard what they have been appointed over so as to be a part of the general well-being of the whole household. In truth, there is no place for personal pride on their parts.

This is the kind of contemplation and reflection that is fitting for everyone that is right-minded and not misguided. And it is only when this has become clear to you that you may be called truly humble. For in your heart and in your inner-being you will be humble. This is what David was referring to when he said to Michal, "And I have been lowly in my own eyes" (2 Samuel 6:22). Our sages have said, "How great are the humble. When the Holy Temple yet stood, a person would offer an olah sacrifice and he would receive the merit of having offered that olah sacrifice. And if he would offer a mincha sacrifice, he would receive merit for that. But one who is humble is considered to have offered all of the sacrifices. As it is written, 'G-d's offering is a contrite spirit' (Psalms 51:19) (Sotah 5b). This is a praise for those who are humble in their hearts and in their thoughts. Our sages have further said, "It is written, 'Not because you are greater in number than all the other nations did G-d send His love upon you or choose you, for you were the fewest of all people' (Deuteronomy 7:7). G-d said to them, 'I long for you, My son. Even when I attribute greatness to you, you humble yourself before me. I attributed greatness to Abraham and he said, 'I am dust and ashes' (Genesis 18:27). I attributed greatness to Moses and Aaron and they said, 'What are we?' (Exodus 16:7). I attributed greatness to David and he said, 'am a worm, not a man' (Psalms 22:7)" (Chullin 89a).

All this comes about if you are honest and will not allow yourself to be seduced by any advantages you might enjoy. You would know that in truth with all of the imperfections you undoubtedly have, you have not outgrown your lowliness. You should also not evidence pride in the mitzvot you have performed, for just by having done them you will not have necessarily reached their ultimate goal. Even if you had no other fault other than that you were flesh-and-blood and born of a woman-- that should be more than enough to indicate your lowliness and imperfection and the fact that you need not at all be haughty. For, whatever advantages you might possess were given to you by G-d who wants to be gracious to you because of your piteous and humble corporeality. You can only acknowledge Him who is so gracious to you and be even more submissive to Him. This is comparable to a pauper who receives a gift out of the goodness of someone else's heart. It is impossible for the pauper to take the gift without being embarrassed. The more generous the giver is to him, the more embarrassed will the pauper be. Such is our case, which is obvious to anyone whose eyes are open to perceive that whatever advantages you enjoy come to you from G-d. As King David put it, "How can I respond to all the generosity G-d has bestowed upon me?" (Psalms 116:12).

We have seen many greatly pious people who have suffered retribution because, despite of all of their piety, they took some of the credit for themselves. This is what Nechemyah ben Chachalyah did, for example. Our sages said, "Why wasn't his book called by his name? -- because he attributed certain things to himself" (Sanhedrin 93b). Chizzkiyah said, "Behold-- in peace I have great bitterness..." (Isaiah 38:17) because G-d said to him, "I have defended this city so as to rescue it for My sake and for the sake of David, My servant" (Isaiah 37:35). Our sages said further, "Whoever attributes some merit to himself has his merit attributed to someone else" (Berachot 10b). From all this we can infer that you are not even to assume goodness in your goodness. All the more so are you not to grow haughty and proud over it.

But all that has been said and that is so fitting to reflect upon is for one who is like Abraham, Moses, Aaron, David or the other saintly ones mentioned. But as for us-- orphans of orphans-- we have no need for this. We so clearly have so many faults that we do not need to reflect very deeply to recognize them. All our wisdom is nothing. The greatest of our sages is nothing but a student of the students of the early ones. It is proper to understand and know this so that our hearts will not swell vainly. We should recognize that, over-all, our minds are superficial, and our perceptions very limited. Foolishness is rampant amongst us and error is triumphant. Whatever we do know is only the very minimum. It is certainly therefore inappropriate for us to be at all haughty. Instead, we should be humble and lowly-- but that goes without saying.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman