13. Torah and Humility Part 2

  • Rav Reuven Ziegler
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Yeshivat Har Etzion


by Rav Ronnie Ziegler

LECTURE #11: Torah and Humility Part 2




Knowledge does not naturally contribute to humility. Normally, the greater the intellectual achievement, the greater the sense of arrogance. But Chazal demand that the acquisition of Torah be associated with humility - pride and Torah are mutually exclusive. The transition from Torah to humility is effected by the idea of kedusha. Kedusha logically should be associated with pride; it is rooted in human greatness, the potential for man to come close to the Almighty. How does the experience of being close to God lead to the experience of humility and human abnegation, which is man's remoteness from God? What is the bridge between these two contradictory states of mind? The bridge is defeat, which inevitably must accompany kedusha.


Kedusha is ceaseless in its motion, in its spreading, searching over the vastness, yearning for the infinite. There can be no final fulfillment in the quest for kedusha, because perfect union is not possible; it can never be realized. Man wants to be more, not for the sake of his own honor, but in order to reach out further, to understand more. The unique character of the "masmid" (diligent Talmud student) is based on this ideal - the incessant pursuit of an unattainable goal, of a fugitive vision, which springs not from intellectual curiosity but rather from the kedusha imbedded in the human personality. The yearning for God can never be satisfied. Tehillim (2:3) asks, "Who shall climb on the mountain of God?" (not "who shall climb to the top of the mountain" - "mi ya'aleh le-har HaShem"; but "mi ya'aleh BE-har HaShem") - man is engaged in climbing the mountain but never reaches the peak. This interminable quest for kedusha is portrayed in Shir HaShirim (the Song of Songs), a never-ending search for "that which my soul loves," searching and not finding. Kedusha is a hierarchy, a pyramid, which many can enter at the base, but whose apex no one can reach.


The drive is never terminated until man is finally defeated. Every man, no matter how great and powerful, must experience frustration, even - no, especially - in the battle he most wants to win. Even Moshe had his most ardent desire denied him. The Sages explain that had Moshe entered the Land of Israel, it would never have fallen to its enemies, the Temple would never have been destroyed. In other words, Moshe's crossing of the Jordan would have ushered in the messianic era, and Moshe would have been the mashiach. He would have succeeded in climbing to the apex of kedusha, combining the crowns of Torah, kingship, and priesthood (keter Torah, malkhut, kehuna) in their fullest expression, with nothing left to achieve. But that can never be. Moshe had to be defeated. God told him, No. You must stop. You will remain the greatest leader of Israel, the standard of Torah scholarship, but you will not be crowned with the crown of the messiah. You are human, you must lose. You must be defeated.


Now we understand how kedusha and humility merge into one. In the very movement where kedusha exults, "I am near God, I am a great being," it decrees its defeat. Being close to God awakens in me the desire to be closer yet, and that itself informs me that complete fulfillment of my desire is impossible, because I am but a small being. I am near God because I am great; I am not as near as I would want to be, because I am small.




The awareness of defeat, the path to humility, has five steps. The first is the feeling of dependence. A ben-Torah must realize he is dependent on the advice, guidance, and instruction of someone who has come a few inches closer to the summit of the mountain. The more one knows, the greater the perplexity; the closer one is to one's Creator, the clearer the awareness of one's inadequacy and failure. Someone else will know more than I. Sometimes it will be a great scholar, sometimes even a small child or a pupil. If you ask me, "Who may lay claim to kedusha?" I will answer, "One who feels the need for a teacher, one who says, 'Make for yourself a teacher and acquire a companion'" - and a teacher can be even a little child. When Korach said, "For the entire people is holy, and God is in their midst" (Bemidbar 16:3), he was correct. But when he continued, "So why do you (Moshe and Aharon) elevate yourselves above the people of God?" he committed a fatal error. He thought that since everyone was sanctified, endowed with kedusha, there was no need for Moshe, for a teacher. Actually, precisely the opposite is true. Because they are endowed with kedusha, there is need for a teacher, for a master guide.


The awareness of dependence is expressed through gratitude and loyalty. Judaism believes that man is never self-sufficient; he always needs help, not only from God, but from his fellow man. Tanakh gives us the figure of Naval HaCarmeli (I Shemuel 23). When Naval denied David's request, he said, "Shall I give MY bread, and MY water, MY slaughter that I have slaughtered from MY flocks, and give to men whom I know not?" He is expressing the mentality of a man who thinks everything is his by virtue of his own unaided efforts, the self-made man. He feels he owes nothing to anyone. The Torah begins the story of Avraham, in contrast, when he is seventy-five. We want to know more about Avraham, how he discovered the eternal truths, why he was chosen. Instead, the Torah tells us about his kinsman Lot. Why is the story of Lot narrated in such detail? It is not because he was a history-making or destiny-shaping individual. The story of Lot tells us that Avraham's main virtue was loyalty and gratitude. When Avraham told the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister, the Sages point out that Lot did not betray him. Avraham is committed to Lot, is going to save him even after Lot has turned his back on Avraham, because Avraham's central virtues were loyalty and gratitude.


The humble man is indebted to his fellow. To whom should we give loyalty? To many. Firstly, to parents. Secondly, to teachers. My students owe me loyalty, though I can get along without it. A student should not close the door after the final exam and walk out. Loyalty to teachers, gratitude, is an essential part of Torah, because it is the basis of humility. Thirdly, we owe loyalty to the countless generations of Torah scholars, to the chain of thinkers and dreamers who formulated the methodology, analyzed the ideas, interpreted the difficult tracts, and communicated all this in a living personal way to us. You owe loyalty to Jewish history, to those who sacrificed temporal things to the eternal masora (tradition).


The second step is intellectual circumspection and caution. A talmid chakham is careful in the rendering of halakha. Only ignorant and arrogant people think that all questions are answerable. The humble talmid chakham does not proclaim high-sounding theories, sweeping statements about ethics and philosophy. The humble person will not boast that Judaism is commodious enough to embrace any theory, any trend in modern culture. A new idea, a new problem, must be treated with circumspection, carefully, and with trepidation.


The third step is ethical modesty. There is not only intellectual dependence, but moral inadequacy as well. Moral complacency, so repugnant in a proper framework of kedusha, is all too prevalent in the Orthodox community, both in the diaspora and in Israel. A talmid chakham is very wary of such "pious" people, who condemn and judge mortal man from a position of assumed moral supremacy. Here too, the endowment with kedusha must be accompanied by a sense of inadequacy and modesty, a readiness to admit errors and understand the view of others, rather than one of self-sat.


The fourth step is called "tzimtzum." The humble man must know how to recoil, to retreat; he must know the art of self-contraction, even when not required by the letter of the law. This is true first of all in the physiological sphere - the Rambam describes in Hilkhot De'ot (ch. 5) the necessity for a wise man to control his appetite, to forego many common pleasures, even though they are not strictly forbidden. Indulgence in luxury manifests pride and vanity. This continues in the social arena as well; he does not attract attention to himself. The attribute of tzimtzum belongs, according to the Kabbala, to God Himself. Here too, we are commanded to imitate God, about whom it is written, "Truly You are a God who hides" (Yeshayahu 45:15). This is expressed in dress and public behavior. It applies to his emotions as well - when he succeeds, the talmid chakham praises God, but does not boast or brag to others. The more one succeeds in the realm of kedusha, the less the outside world will know of it. If he is in distress, he will pray to God, but not cry out loud hysterically. The greater the wise man, the more he controls, limits, his emotions. Torah, thought, must be spread to others; emotions are not meant for others. Here, retreat is called for. My father, Rav Moshe zt"l, referring to the verse, "The covering shall separate the Holy from the Holy of Holies," explained that man's intellect is his Holy, but the emotional life, his love, pity, compassion, anguish, exultation, joy and sadness, is his Holy of Holies, and no one is allowed into the inner sanctum. Emotional life should remain the secret of the Torah personality.


The fifth and final step is "chesed," generosity. We are interdependent. The same way I expect and depend on others to help me, I must extend help to others. I must open myself up to embrace the other. When man steps out of his egocentric solitude, chesed is realized. Kedusha cannot be expressed only by acquisition. To give to others is the necessary counterpoint to the receiving of love. Chesed is an overflow of kindness, love, enthusiasm, which cannot be contained within, like a river which overflows its banks and inundates the environs.


A father's desire for a child is usually based on his fear of death; it is a desire for continuation, for immortality. A mother wishes to have a child out of a desire to love, to give love. Chana, childless, goes to pray to God. The verse says she was "middaberet al liba" (lit., speaking ON her heart). Chazal explain the phrase to mean, "about matters of the heart." She wanted someone upon whom she could center and focus her love, her capacity to care and give. Prophecy, too, is described as bursting forth to others, incapable of remaining in the mind of the prophet. Yirmiyahu says, "The word of God was a fire within my bones." The wise man must turn not only to those who are above him, but also to those who are below who require his teaching. He has no choice; he is overflowing. It is a condition of learning that we give a hand to those below even as we climb higher ourselves. It is just as dignified to teach aleph-bet as to teach Talmud. Chazal say that children who die before they have begun to receive an education are taught by God. Here too, we must imitate God.


Kedushat HaTorah is based on the certainty that all the congregation of God is holy, that all can achieve sanctity. The Rambam writes that the Torah guarantees that the Jews will repent and come closer to God. The humble, generous ben-Torah must have confidence and faith in Klal Yisrael, the Jewish community as a whole. He cannot belong to a sect, concerned only with itself. Every Jew has the capacity for kedusha and a desire for sanctity, even if he is unaware of it, and none shall be expelled. We shall never give up on a single Jew, we have faith in "the lost in the land of Edom and the oppressed in the land of Egypt," the assimilated and the downtrodden, even as we believe in the words of the prophet, "Peace, peace, says God, to the far and the near, and I shall heal them."


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