Thursday, June 4, 2015

Humble Pie - Reflections on Parashat Ba'Haalotecha 5775

There is a well worn story about the rabbi who, looking out upon his flock on Yom Kippur, prostrates himself before Holy Ark and declares, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I am as nothing!"

The cantor, upon seeing the devotions of the rabbi (and never to be outdone), quickly falls upon his face and also cries out, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I am as nothing!" 

A simple congregant, deeply moved by these acts of piety, prostrates himself as well and screams out, "Oh Gcd! Before you, I too am as nothing!"

To this, the cantor whispers to the rabbi: "Ha! Look who thinks he's as nothing!"

Don't hate me for my bad jokes.

This week's parasha describes Moses as the humblest man to ever walk the earth. (Numbers 12:3)  How does that statement help us understand the personality of Moses? Did he see himself as a 'nothing'? How do we define humility anyway? And lastly, why is this character trait so important? 

The definitions of humility are all over the map. Rashi succinctly defines humility as being of lowly spirit and patient. The Ibn Ezra says that Moses was humble in his estimation of himself, in that he never aspired to greatness, to be elevated above his brethren. The Ramban says Moses' humility was defined by his willingness to remain silent in the face of the hurtful rumors against him. And so, says the Ramban, Gcd Himself rose to his defense. 

In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Salanter defined humility as focusing on our own personality flaws (for the purposes of self-improvement) while overlooking the flaws in others. And in the 20th century, Rabbi Avrohom Twerski in Let Us Make Man defines humility as always looking forward, towards the next task to which we can apply our unique talents and gifts, rather than looking backwards at our accomplishments, constantly pointing to a mantlepiece bulging with awards and trophies.

Perhaps humility is, as Oliver Wendell Holmes observed (on a very different subject) hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

I suggest that Moses' humility was rooted in another key concept Gcd uses in these verses to describe him: Avdi, My servant. 

Moses' life was utterly devoted to the service of Gcd and to the service of his fellow. He was indefatigable in this. Unlike the rest of us, he never needed a mental health day, or "me" time, or summer vacation. Moses was forever thinking about the needs of others; and when a person is wholly, utterly preoccupied with the needs of others, there is simply no time to consider the self. 

That's an almost impossible standard, and that's why Moses was in a league by himself. 

Humility is not lack of self-esteem,  a sense of worthlessness or self-abnegation; it is rooted in selflessness and service to others. C.S. Lewis once said that, "True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less."

And it must be said that arrogance and narcissism, the great spiritual scourges of our time, are the polar opposites of humility. The Arizal understands arrogance to be the root of all sin, so we can infer that humility is the root of Gcdliness.

Humility comes from being a holistic, centered person, one with an healthy sense of their own strengths and weaknesses. When a person has a balanced life and healthy relationships (see more on this subject HERE) they have a clear sense of the contribution they can make, and are thereby in a position to truly serve others.

By contrast, off-center people who feel some lack in their lives are perpetually focused on themselves, vainly attempting to fill the unfillable black hole of "what-I-need." Any service such a person may attempt to render to Gcd or their fellow man is flawed because it is ultimately self-serving.

I am indebted to my friend Brian Goldman for sharing a recent David Brooks op-ed in the New York Times. In it, Brooks asked readers to describe where they found fulfillment and meaning. Many of the respondents found meaning in a "small, happy life."

He recounts the story of a young man

...who was asked by a journalist to show his most precious possession. The man...was proud and excited to show the journalist the gift he had been bequeathed. A banged up tin pot he kept carefully wrapped in cloth as though it was fragile. The journalist was confused, what made this dingy old pot so valuable? ‘The message,’ the friend replied. The message was ‘we do not all have to shine.’ This story resonated deeply. In that moment I was able to relieve myself of the need to do something important, from which I would reap praise and be rewarded with fulfillment. My vision cleared. [My emphasis. - YM]  
Moses, as great as he was, was the icon of humility because he tackled the challenges Gcd had assigned him to tackle. It is not for us to do Moses' task. For the rest of us, humility is a willingness to accept the challenges and solve the problems that Gcd presents in our own lives, and to do so with quiet dignity, with grace, and without fanfare.

The verse in Psalms 131 states: "My heart was not proud, nor my eyes haughty, nor did I pursue matters too great and wondrous for me." 

Most of us are not kings or generals or captains of industry; it's probably not your job to single-handedly to invent "the-next-big-thing" or abolish hate or war or hunger or avarice. So instead of stressing out over things we have no power to control, better to do those mitzvot that Gcd lays at our doorstep: study Torah; feed the poor; care for our cherished ones and our community; plant a tree, tend a garden or put up a bird feeder.

And as we learn in this week's parasha, those who cultivate within themselves a spirit of genuine humility can be assured that Gcd will rise to their defense.

Ours is to apply our efforts to the task ahead. As Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short; there is much work to do; yet the workers are lazy though the incentive is great; and the Business Owner is insistent. (Avot 2:20)

Shabbat Shalom.

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