Friday, 21 June, 2019 - 2:05 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 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? And 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? And I'll tell them that I'm physically weak. Then they'll ask me, why didn't you give more Tzedakah? And 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."

“Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, the Torah relates to the conclusion of Behaalotcha. "Has G-d spoken only through Moses?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?"

The nature of their complaint is ambiguous. Interpretations abound. What gives this episode its intensity is not what is said but who said it. This is Moses' own brother and sister, the sister who watched over him as a baby as he floated down the Nile in a reed basket, the brother who was his faithful companion in some of his most risk-laden encounters. To be criticized by the crowd, or by opponents, is one thing. To be turned in by those closest to you is altogether different and unnerving.

What is Moses' response? Nothing.

“Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.”

Is Moses humble? The man who undaunted in 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?

What is more, how could he even be humble? The man who was chosen by G-d to be His greatest prophet and messenger, who gave the Torah to the Jewish people, who could speak to G-d at any moment, the man whom Maimonides describes as “the perfection of the human species,” how could he humbler than anyone else on the face of the earth?

There is a famous Mishnah at the end of Tractate Sotah: “When Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, Judah the Prince, passed away, humility ceased.”

Says the Talmud: 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!

This comment of Rav Yosef begs for clarification. How can he say such words?

He had encyclopedic, clear, and decisive knowledge, in all of Torah. He was the “google” of his age—whatever you asked him, he knew, and he knew it clearly, in an organized, cohesive and clear fashion.

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

How then can we understand Rav Yosef making such a statement, that no one should assume there are no more humble people left, for he is still around and he is humble…. I mean, that does not sound to humble to me!  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. And if I am a brilliant musician, orator, or writer, and I consider myself talentless, I am just lying to myself and to others. 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," in the famous expression of Deuteronomy. “It is your G-d who gives you the power to generate this strength.” 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 a Divine gift, given to me so I can fulfill my mission in life.

And the more humble 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 (which is another form of insecurity.)  Abraham Lincoln said. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it's thinking of yourself less,” C.S Lewis said.  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 spokesman 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 straight-forward responses, the judge said, "Rabbi Abramsky, what about a little humility?!”

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

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once shared another personal experience that touched him.

It happened in St James Palace on 27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Punctuality, said Louis XVIII of France, is the politeness of kings. Royalty arrives on time and leaves on time. So it is with the Queen, but not on this occasion. When the time came for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said he had never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure time.

She was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. She gave each survivor – it was a large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story. One after another, the survivors were coming to me in a kind of trance, saying, “Sixty years ago I did not know whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.” It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives. Sixty years earlier they had been treated, in Germany, Austria, Poland, in fact in most of Europe, as subhuman, yet now the Queen was treating them as if each were a visiting Head of State. That was humility: not holding yourself low but holding others high.

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 to anyone before him or after him. Moses was the single greatest teacher and leader who ever lived. Did he know it?

Of course, he did. He had to know it if he was to fulfill his duties in this world. And yet, he was humble. What is more, it was his humility that allowed him to fulfill his role in this world. Deeper yet. Moses genuinely felt that if another person was given similar gifts and opportunities, he or she may have utilized them to even a greater degree, thus, he felt humble in the presence of all people. He always asked himself, has he lived up to his full potential?

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.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes his personal encounter with a humble man:

As a young man, full of questions about faith, I traveled to the United States where I had heard, there were outstanding rabbis. I met many, but I also had the privilege of meeting the greatest Jewish leader of my generation, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Heir to the dynastic leadership of a relatively small group of Jewish mystics, he had escaped from Europe to New York during the Second World War and had turned the tattered remnants of his flock into a worldwide movement. Wherever I traveled, I heard tales of his extraordinary leadership, many verging on the miraculous. He was, I was told, one of the outstanding charismatic leaders of our time. I resolved to meet him if I could.

I did and was utterly surprised. He was certainly not charismatic in any conventional sense. Quiet, self-effacing, understated, one might hardly have noticed him had it not been for the reverence in which he was held by his disciples. That meeting, though, changed my life. He was a world-famous figure. I was an anonymous student from three thousand miles away. Yet in his presence, I seemed to be the most important person in the world.

He asked me about myself. He listened carefully. He challenged me to become a leader, something I had never contemplated before. Quickly it became clear to me that he believed in me more than I believed in myself. As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. That is what listening is, considered as a religious act. I then knew that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards. There was no grandeur in his manner; neither was there any false modesty. He was serene, dignified, majestic; a man of transcending humility who gathered you into his embrace and taught you to look up.

I learned my own lesson in humility from the following deeply humbling experience.

I once served as a rabbi in a congregation, where the 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 Shabbos morning and watch me give my weekly Shabbos 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. (Never mind, he had to bring him from across the street. But for this boy, it was a 45-minute journey!). 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 which 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, 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 silence of the self in the presence of that which is greater than the self. It allows us to transcend our pettiness and becomes conduits for the infinite.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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