Thursday, May 23, 2013

"Compared to Whom"

"And Moshe was very humble, moreso than any person who ever lived."

In this week's Parsha Aharon and Miriam question behaviors in Moshe's personal life. They suspect Moshe has taken on ascetic practices that are beyond necessary. They wonder whether Moshe had become too extreme in his religiosity or, in our terms, become too frum. In response G-d chastised both of them. He tells them that they are not capabable of passing judgement on their brother, that his level of prophesy is unprecedented. And then the Torah praises Moshe with the ultimate compliment, the one we quoted above. "And Moshe was very humble, moreso than any person who ever lived."

In our tradition to be humble is to own the greatest of character traits. Over and over, from the prophets to the rabbinic sages of the Talmud we are taught that G-d prefers the 'anav', the one who poseses humility. Moreover G-d loathes the arrogant, no matter how talented they may be or how learned. Moshe was excellent in many ways. Yet it's his unparalleled humility that is his charactalogical legacy.

Moshe's humility is evident over and over through the years of his leadership of the People of Israel. In this week's parsha alone we see it evidenced several times. In example, when Yehoshua, Moshe's disciple is upset that Eldad and Maidad are prophesying in the camp, rather than be concerned with competition, Moshe told him, "It should only be that all the nation were prophets, that G-d would dwell His spirit on all of them."

The Gemara teaches us that Moshe's unique level of 'anivut', humility can be gleaned from the very words Moshe used to refer to himself. In the Book of Sh'mot, when the nation came to him complaining about their diet, prior to receiving the 'man', manna, Moshe spoke about himself and Aharon and said to the nation "...we are nothing. Your complaints should be with G-d not us." The Talmud points out that Moshe referred to himself as "nothing" whereas Avraham when he prayed to G-d for the people of Sodom in the book of Breishit referred to himself as "dust and ashes". Avraham was indeed very humble. Yet he still saw himself as, at least, dust and ashes. Moshe was a step beyond in his humility. Moshe saw himself as entirely nothing!

The Talmudic teaching is clever but not easy to understand. It's true Moshe referred to himself as nothing and Avraham spoke of himself as dust and ashes, but what real difference is there between the two? Dust and Ashes are also essentially nothing. They have no intrinsic worth. Why then should Avraham's humility be considered of a slightly lesser distinction?

I heard this week from Rav Zemel of Yerushalayim a beautiful insight into the Talmud's teaching, and one deeply relevant for me and, I suspect, for you. To shed light on our question he told a story of the great 17th Century rabbi and mystic Yonason Eybeschutz. Once Rav Yonasan could not get home from his travels for Yom Kippur. He needed to spend the fast in a small village. He came to shule and during the pre-fast Mincha service, where the confession is recited, he foudn himself praying next to a man who exhibitted an extraordinary level of piety and remorse. This man prayed the mincha amida and the 'al chet' with tears and anguish. He went so far as to repeat the sins in German, his native tongue, as well as Hebrew. His prayers were long and intense. Rav Yonasan was both imnpressed and inspired.

When Rav Yonasan came back to shule after eating the pre-fast feast he was asked where he might like to sit during Yom Kippur prayers. The community wanted to extend to Rav Yonasan the greatest honor. The rav said that he would like to sit next to the Jew where he had prayed the mincha service. The rav hoped this devout Jew's davening would aid him in his own 'kavana'. And so it was. The Jew prayed the evening prayer of Yom Kippur and the morning shacharit davening with the same fervor and intensity. Rav Yonasan was deeply affected.

Then came time for the Torah reading. Members of the congregation were called up for aliyot. The devout Jew who sat next to Rav Yonasan also received an aliya. But to his chagrin, he did not receive one of the more honored aliyot, like shlishi or shishi, the 3rd or 6th.
He was called to the Torah for chamishi, the 5th aliya, one of no special distinction. The Jew was livid. He felt dissed. He complained long and loud to the gabai. He charged "What do you mean giving me chamishi? You insult me!"

Rav Yonasan watched the drama unfold in amazement. At the close of prayers he could not contain himself. He addressed the Jew with whom he had sat Yom Kippur. He asked "I don't understand. You prayed over and over confessing your sins and your limitations. You cried and pleaded that you are ashamed of your life and deeds. How then did you feel that getting the 5th aliya, chamishi, was an insult? You said over and over you were unworthy?

The Jew without missing a beat explained, "Yes, when I speak to G-d I am unworthy and ashamed. I feel totally inadequate. But the aliyot were not between me and G-d. They were about me in comparison to the others in the shule. Compared to them I am much more worthy. I deserve the more distinguished honors much more than them."

To be humble before G-d is nice but it's no measure of true humility, no matter how passionately we express it. The difference between Avraham's humility and Moshe's was not only the difference between "dust and ashes" and "nothing". Avraham referred to himself as "dust and ashes" before G-d. He used that self-reference when he was pleading to G-d to save the Sodomites. Moshe called himself "nothing" when we was talking to a ungrateful people. Even when compared to others Moshe saw himself as nothing. That is true humility. Moshe was indeed the 'anav mekal adam', "the most humble of humans".

The lesson for me, and perhaps for you in what we have discerned is oh so potent. How often is it that in my prayers, before G-d, I both feel and express a sense of personal inadequacy and humility. I may cry. I may plead. I will speak to G-d with great remorse over my life and limitations. We do this daily in our prayers. And yet despite the passionate words in truth I may not be humble at all. I remain judgemental of others. I still see myself as 'better than'. I look down on others as less than me. To that extent I am not humble but indeed arrogant and loathesome to G-d. Unless and until I stop seeing myself in a superior position all my expressions of humility are vacuuous.

The bitter test each of us needs to take to determine our character is not before G-d but before our fellow humans. To be humble relative to G-d is no virtue. The challenge is to feel humble when I compare myself to my neighbor and friend. The challenge is to be able say "they are more deserving of the honor than me"!

The work of humility is humbling. It's no easy virtue. The first step we need to take is to get past the self-deception and discern false humility from its authentic expression!

Shabbat Shalom

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