“In Praise of Humility”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Vayeitzei, we find Jacob fleeing from the death threats of his brother, Esau. As the sun sets in Bet El, Jacob places some stones under his head and lies down to sleep.

Jacob dreams the famous dream of a ladder standing on earth, with its top reaching heavenward. Angels of G-d are ascending and descending the ladder. G-d then appears to Jacob to tell him that the earth upon which Jacob is lying will ultimately be given to him and his descendants. The Al-mighty then promises Jacob that his children will be as the dust of the earth and will spread westward, eastward, northward and southward. Furthermore, G-d informs Jacob, that all the families of the earth will bless themselves by him and his offspring.

When Jacob awakens from his sleep he declares, (Genesis 28:16): “Ah’chayn yaish Hashem ba’mah’kom hah’zeh, v’ah’no’chee lo yah’dah’tee.” Surely G-d is present in this place and I did not know! Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, the foremost Bible commentator) explains that in this verse, Jacob apologizes for the fact that had he known that G-d was present in that place he would not have dared to sleep there. The Or HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743, famous Kabbalist and Talmudic scholar) explains alternatively that Jacob regrets not having prepared himself sufficiently so that he could have possibly had a proper vision while he was awake, rather than while asleep.

There are two words in the Hebrew language that mean “I” or “me,”–the simple “ah’nee,” and the more regal and formal “ah’no’chee.” When Jacob says: “I did not know,” he uses the Hebrew expression “v’ah’no’chee lo yah’dah’tee.” The Chassidic commentators have a field day with the word “ah’no’chee.” The Tifferet Shlomo (Shlomo Hacohen Rabinowich, 1803-1866, Chassidic leader, Rabbi of Radomsk, Poland) explains that Jacob in effect said to himself: If G-d is indeed in this place, if I helped bring the Divine presence here, it is because I was able to nullify the ‘ah’no’chee in me. Because I had no ego, no hidden agenda or personal ulterior motive, my own self essence was voided, with the result that everything I did was for the sake of the Al-mighty, to unite His holiness, blessed be He, and His divine presence.

When can a human being experience G-d’s nearness? Says the Panim Yafot (Rabbi Pinchas Halevi Horowitz, 1730-1805, Chassidic leader, Rabbi of Frankfort, Germany), only when a person is suffused by “I don’t know”–only when the person knows that he/she does not know or pretend to have wisdom and insight into G-d.

The Torah tells us in Genesis 1:27, that when the human being was first created, “G-d created the human in His image, in the image of G-d created He him, male and female, created He them.” According to the interpretation of some biblical commentators, including Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, (1903-1993, original Talmudic scholar, thinker and community leader), the first human being was created with the potential to be Divine-like. Just as G-d is compassionate, so the human being has the capacity to be compassionate. Just as G-d is filled with loving-kindness, so the human being should be filled with loving-kindness. Unfortunately, this early human being did not reach his divine potential, and often chose instead to act in a bestial manner, seeking self-gratification and utilitarian fulfillment.

That is why, these commentators explain, that in Genesis 2 there is a second story of “creation.” Genesis 2:7 reads: “And the lord G-d ‘formed’ the human being out of dust of the earth and He breathed in to his nostrils a living breath, and the human being became a living soul.” Adam I, as Rabbi Soloveitchik calls him, the primordial human being created in Genesis 1, had Divine potential, but never realized that potential. Therefore, G-d infuses this human being with dust of the earth. “You, Adam, think that you are the end-all-and-be-all of creation? I am telling you,” says G-d, “that you are but ‘dust of the earth’–you are nothing!” The Al-mighty in effect endows the human being with humility. “You may be a homosapien,” says G-d to Adam I, “but you are not a mentsch, because you’re filled with pride and arrogance. I will implant humility in your breast. Let us see how things develop from here.”

The Bible provides many examples of the importance of the quality of humility. So, for example, while Moses had many unparalleled virtues, the Bible singles out his humility (Number 12:3). Furthermore, the fact that his humility is cited in reference to his behavior towards other human beings and not only G-d, is indeed fascinating. That, says the Noam Megadim (Eliezer Ish Horowitz of Tarnogrod, d. 1809, a disciple of R’ Elimelech of Lizhensk), was Moses’ true humility.

The Talmud in Megillah 31a, in a citation that is recited on Saturday nights in the V’yee’tayn L’chah prayer, points out that wherever there is a Biblical reference to G-d’s greatness and power, we find there a reference to G-d’s humility and grace. The G-d who is transcendent and all knowing, all powerful and remote is the same G-d who is immanent and close, caring and humble. The Pesikda d’rav Kahana, chapter 4, points out that a person stricken with tza’raat (the biblical disease) is cleansed with both cedar wood and hyssop (Leviticus 14:4). This serves to remind the one who is stricken, that the disease tzoraat may have been caused by his hubris, represented by the cedar, the tallest and most powerful tree, and that he may be healed only by humbling himself like the lowest plant, the hyssop.

The midrash Mechilta reminds us that G-d revealed himself to Moses in a bush to teach us that the loftiest may be found in the lowliest. Similarly, the Talmud in Sotah 5a says, “We can learn [to be humble] from the Creator, who revealed himself at Sinai (a low mountain), not on high mountains, and in a bush, not in majestic trees.

The prophet Michah (6:8) has articulated perhaps the most famous statement concerning humility. In his immortal worlds, the prophet declares, “It has been told you O man, what is good, and what the Lord does require of you? Only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with G-d.” The prophet beseeches the people to walk with decency, chastity and purity, underscoring the greatness of G-d’s model. That is why, the Baal Shem Tov, (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezar, also known as the Besht, 1698–1760,the founder of the Chassidic movement) was accustomed to say: “To find truth, bend down humbly,” (Derash Tov), and that the test of the real service of G-d is that it leaves behind the feeling of humility.

There is a Chassidic tale, quoted by Louis Jacobs in his volume, What does Judaism say about…?, (1973, Keter Publishing House, Jerusalem), that tells of the disciples of the Kotsker Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk,1787-1859) who paid great deference to a man whom they held to be humble. “Is he a scholar?” they were asked. “No,” was the reply. “Is he a rich man?” “No.” “Is he of good family?” “No.” “Then what has he to be proud about?” But when the Kotsker heard of it he declared: “If the man is no scholar, is poor and of bad family, and yet manages to be humble, his is, indeed a great achievement!”

May you be blessed.