Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Messilas Yesharim (Tues., Sept. 18th)


We have thus explicated the general aspects of modesty, but their particulars are so numerous that you must use your own judgment about them as the situation would indicate. (Proverbs 1:5) "Let the wise listen and take more." One thing is sure-- modesty removes many stumbling-blocks along the way, and brings you closer to the great good. The modest person is little concerned for matters of this world, and he is not envious of its vanities. Also, the friendship of a modest person is very wonderful-- people enjoy his company. Of a necessity he does not come to anger or argumentation-- everything he does is done peaceably and serenely. One who merits this trait is fortunate. As our sages put it, (JT Shabbat 1:3) "The very thing wisdom made a crown for its head, humility has made a heel for its sandal", because wisdom cannot compare to it; but that goes without saying.


There are two things that bring you to humility: force of habit, and reflection. Force of habit involves your slowly habituating yourself to act humbly along the lines we have delineated-- by sitting in a less than auspicious place, by walking at the back of a company of people, and by dressing in modest clothing (that is, clothing that is respectable, but not outstanding). By habituating yourself in this path you will find that humility will slowly enter and penetrate your heart as it should. As it is in our heart's nature to swell and grow haughty, it is difficult to uproot this natural inclination at its source. The only way anything like it can be accomplished is by your taking control of the external actions that are available to you. Thus you can slowly affect the internality of it, which you do not have as much control over, as we explained in the chapter on enthusiasm. All of this is expressed by our sages as, "Let a man always be creative in his reverence" (Berachot 17a). That means to say that you should always look for some special means of going against your nature and inclination so that you may succeed in subduing it.

Reflection involves various things. The first is as indicated in the statement of Akavyah ben Mahalalel, "Know where you have come from-- a putrid drop; and where you are going-- to a place of dust, vermin and worms; and before Whom you are destined to give an account and reckoning-- the King of kings, the Holy One (blessed be He)" (Pirke Avot 3:1). In truth, these realizations stifle all arrogance and help foster humility. When you will face the imperfection inherent in your humanity and the lowliness of your origins, you will find that you have no reason to be proud at all. On the contrary-- you would be abashed and mortified. To what can this be compared? -- to a pig-herder who becomes a king. It is impossible for him to become too proud if he remembers his origins. He will likewise be humbled when he would reflect upon his current greatness's ultimate destiny-- the return to dust and the becoming food for worms-- and all the more so when he will consider the fact that his reign will eventually be undone, and all the uproar of his personal pride will be forgotten. What, after all, is his goodness, what his greatness if he is destined to shame and mortification?

If you will reflect further and try to imagine for just a moment your appearance before the great angelic Court, when you will stand before the King of kings, the Holy One (blessed be He), who is the ultimate in holiness and purity, thick in the mystery of the Holy Ones, the mighty servants who are great in power, who do His will without a blemish-- you: lowly, imperfect and inherently shameful, impure and sullied because of your actions... Could you even lift your head? Is there anything you could say? If they were to ask you, "Where's your tongue? Where's the power and honor you bore in the world?" what would you say? How would you respond to their reproofs? If you were to honestly and convincingly impress this scene upon your mind for just one moment, all of your arrogance would surely flee, never to return.

The second object of reflection involves the consequences of the changes that come about through the passage of time. The rich can easily become poor; the ruler can easily become the ruled; the honored the despised. Since it is so easy to transform into something which is so abhorrent to you at this point, how can you possibly be proud of your current, so tenuous situation? An illness may strike you (G-d forbid) that will force you to seek someone's help so that you can be a little relieved. Pains and sorrows of all sorts could come your way (G-d forbid) that would force you to seek out certain people for help whom, at this point, you would just hate to offer a hello to in the street. You see these sorts of things happening every day. They are enough to wipe out arrogance from your heart, and envelope you in humility and submission. When you will further reflect upon your obligations to G-d, and of how often you disregard them or are lax in them, you can never grow haughty-- you will certainly be embarrassed rather than proud. So the verse says, "I have surely heard Ephraim lamenting.... For after I turned away I repented; after I was made to know, I smote my thigh. I was ashamed and confounded" (Jeremiah 31:17 -18). What you should ultimately do is recognize the fallibility of human knowledge and of how liable it is for error and untruth. It is more likely to be wrong than right. You should therefore constantly be afraid of the dangers inherent in this situation, and try to learn from all people and take advice so that you will not stumble. This is what our sages were referring to when they said, "Who is a sage? -- one who learns from all" (Pirke Avot 4:1). And the Torah says, "One who takes advice is a sage" (Proverbs 12:15).

What deters from this trait is the overabundance of and the being full of the good things in this world. As the verse clearly states, "(Beware, lest) you eat and grow full (and forget G-d) and your heart be made proud" (Deuteronomy 8:12–14). The pious find it better to deprive themselves sometimes, so that they might subdue the inclination towards arrogance, which prospers in a climate of plenty. Our sages have said along these lines, "A lion does not roar over a basket of straw, but, rather, over a basket of meat" (Berachot 32a). What is most likely to deter is ignorance and lack of true knowledge. As can be seen, arrogance is most often found in the more ignorant. As our sages put it, "A sure sign of haughtiness is poverty in Torah learning" (Sanhedrin 24a) ; "A sure sign that someone knows nothing is bragging" (Zohar, Balak); "A single coin in a bottle makes a loud clanging sound" (Baba Metziah 85b); and "They asked the barren trees why their voices were heard, and they responded, 'We only wish our voices would be heard. That way we would be remembered'" (Breishit Rabbah 16:3). And we see that Moses, the best of men, was the most modest of men.


© 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman