Thursday, 8 June, 2023 - 11:09 pm

A man received a promotion to the position of Vice President of the company he worked for. The promotion went to his head, and for weeks on end, he bragged to anyone and everyone that he was now VP. His bragging came to an abrupt halt when his wife, so embarrassed by his behavior, said, “Listen Bob, it’s not that big a deal. These days everyone’s a vice president. Why do they even have a vice president of peas down at the supermarket!”

Somewhat deflated, Bob rang the local supermarket to find out if this was true. “Can I speak to the Vice President of peas please?” he asked, to which the reply came: “Of fresh or frozen?”

Rabbi Rafael of Barshad summed up his life’s philosophy as follows:  "When I get to heaven, they'll ask me, why didn't you learn more Torah? I'll tell them that I'm slow-witted. Then they'll ask me, why didn't you run around and do more kindness for others? I'll tell them that I'm physically weak. Then they'll ask me, why didn't you give more charity? I'll tell them that I didn't have money.
But then they'll ask me: If you were so stupid, weak, and poor, why were you so arrogant? And for that, I won't have an answer."

The Torah relates to the conclusion of this week's portion Behaalotcha.

The Torah wishes us to know that “Moses was a very humble man, humbler than anyone else on the face of the earth.”

Is Moses humble? The man who undaunted the presence of Pharaoh, who led an entire people out of slavery, the man who smashed the tablets after seeing the golden calf. Was this a humble man?

There is an interesting Mishnah: “When Rebbi Judah the Prince, the editor of the Mishnah died, humility ceased.”

Says the Talmud: “Rav Yosef told them that the text of the Mishnah could not possibly be accurate, "For I am here.

"Rav Yosef is saying that since “I am here,” and I am humble, thus it is inaccurate to say that when Rebbi died, humility died with him. For I, Rav Yosef, am here! That does not sound too humble to me!

Rav Yosef, we know, has become blind.  And yet despite this, his mastery of the Torah was unique to his generation.

The Rebbe explained this beautifully.  The answer becomes clear when we can appreciate what humility means in Judaism. Humility is not what it is sometimes taken to be, a low estimate of oneself. I think that I am small, insignificant, and of no prominence. That is counterfeit humility. If I am tall, and in the name of humility I claim to be short, I am not humble; I am stupid. If I am gorgeous, and in the name of humility, I consider myself ugly, I am simply foolish. If I am smart and I think I am dumb, then maybe I am dumb. That is not the Jewish version of humility.

True humility is the clear awareness of who I am, what my strengths and weaknesses are, what I am called upon to do, and the unique opportunities I possess. What then makes me humble? It is the realization that all my strengths, talents, and abilities are gifts from Heaven. "It is not my strength and the power of my hand that has wrought me all this valor," “It is your G-d who gives you the power to generate this strength.” I have no reason to boast, internally or externally, or feel superior about my qualities and unique strengths. I have nothing. I own nothing. It is all a gift from G-d. The brains, the looks, the charisma, the skills, the strength, the talents, the resources, the wealth, the wisdom, the power—are not mine; I do not own them; I did not create them. I can lose them at any moment. They are all Divine gifts, given to me so I can fulfill my mission in life.

And the humbler you are, the more successful you become. Because your ego does not get in the way of your mission. Harry Truman once said: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

Humility is not self-abasement. It is the ability not to get stuck in insecurity or arrogance.   Abraham Lincoln said. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less”.

They tell the following cute story.

When the practice of ritual slaughter was under attack in Great Britain, the famed Rabbi Yechezkel Abramsky was called to court in its defense.

The judge read from the deposition which lay before him: "Rabbi Abramsky," said the judge, "it says here that you are the foremost authority of Jewish Law in the British Empire. Is that true?" "That is true, your honor."

"And that you are the most eloquent spokesperson for Jewish Law in the British Empire?" "That is also true, your honor."

"It also says here that you are the most senior rabbi in the British Empire. Is that correct?" "That is correct, your Honor."

Taken aback by the Rabbi's straightforward responses, the judge said, "Rabbi Abramsky, what about a little humility?!”

"What should I do, your honor? I'm under oath."

So, Moses, the greatest human being who ever lives, was also the humblest man on earth. Moses was aware of his position, stature, and unique place in history, unparalleled by anyone before him or after him. Moses was the single greatest teacher and leader who ever lived. Did he know it?

Moses genuinely felt that if another person was given similar gifts and opportunities, he or she may have utilized them to an even greater degree, thus, he felt humble in the presence of all people. He always asked himself, has he lived up to his full potential? Has he maximized all the abilities G-d has given him? Is it possible that someone else would have done even better?

The same is true with Rav Yosef. He could say, “Do not say there are no more humble men, for I am here.” The truly humble person is aware that he is humble. He knows that he was given a gift of humility. And when he is truly humble, he can say it. He can say, “I am a humble person.”

Real humility is not about displaying a fake demeanor of humility, so people think you are humble. Such a person will never ever, in a million years, say “I am a humble person.” It will undermine the show, even if the show is performed unconsciously. Yet nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. But the genuinely humble person can speak of it. For he realizes that his humility, too, is a gift from G-d.

I learned my own lesson in humility from the following deeply humbling experience.  I once served as a rabbi in a congregation, where chatting during services was frequent. But once, it was during Sukkot, as I rose to give the sermon, the noise was deafening. When I could not get it silent, I decided to call it quits. I sat down and continued the services.

A few days later, a man shared with me the following story. His son has been suffering from a severe case of Cerebral Palsy. One of his great delights was to come often on Shabbat morning and watch me give my weekly Shabbat sermon. The boy did not hear the words or understand them, but he loved watching me lift and wave my hands, alter my facial features, run around, jump, scream, or lower my voice, and get excited.

That morning of Sukkot, his son indicated that he wants to come to shul to hear my sermon. It took the father 45 minutes to bring his handicapped son to shul. As they entered the shul, they were excited to hear that I was just about to begin the sermon.

“My son was so excited to see you get up and start speaking,” the father told me. “These speeches do something for my boy. And as he got to his ‘regular’ place in shul, his face was beaming, waiting with anticipation for a great presentation that would keep him involved, inspired, and delighted! I could see how happy he felt.

Then, the father, tears streaming down his face tells me:

“My son began smiling. But then seconds later, you sat down, and you refused to continue speaking due to the noise. My son was let down. He was deeply disappointed. I walked him back home, for another 45 minutes, and his eyes were downcast. You ruined his day.”

The father then said to me these words: “You made a big mistake, Rabbi. You thought you were talking to those who listen and understand. You missed the point. You were talking to a child with Cerebral Palsy who just wants to see your lips moving, and your hands swaying.”

That lesson was life-changing. As a result of focusing on my honor, I lost the opportunity to touch this child. And I realized how we never know what we are meant to accomplish in life. Sometimes I think I am accomplishing one thing with a speech; I think I know what I am doing, and thus I know when to stop doing it; when in reality, I am accomplishing something else completely. And I may never even know what it is.

Humility is the ability to stand in silent awe in the presence of otherness—in the presence of G-d, the depth of other people, the majesty of creation, the beauty of the world, the power of great ideas, the call of great ideals. Humility is the silence of the self in the presence of that which is greater than the self. It allows us to transcend our pettiness and becomes a conduit for the infinite.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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