Parashat Vayishlach: Pride and Humility

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


By Rav Binyamin Tabory


Shiur #08: Pride and Humility



            As Yaakov prepares to meet Esav, he prays, "I have been diminished by all the kindnesses and by the truth that You have done Your servant" (Bereishit 32:11).  Rashi explains that Yaakov was afraid that any merit he had accumulated had been dissipated by the reward that he had already received.  Therefore, he was worried that he did not deserve to be saved from Esav.


            The gemara says (Sota 5a) in the name of Rav Chiyya bar Ashi that a talmid chakham should have one eighth of an eighth of pride.  Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak disagrees and says there should be no trace of pride at all.


            Many commentators have attempted to explain the meaning of "an eighth of an eighth."  Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes commentated that this measure is less than one sixtieth, and therefore is considered null and void.  (If one sixtieth of non-kosher liquid is mixed with kosher liquid, the non-kosher segment is null and void and the mixture may be eaten.)


            It has been written in the name of the Gaon of Vilna (Kol Eliyahu p.81) that "one eighth of an eighth" alludes to the statement, "I have been diminished."  The eighth parasha of the Torah is Toledot, and the eighth sentence begins, "I have been diminished."  The Gaon explains that when someone prays, he should not ask God to help him for his own sake.  He should rather ask for help in the name of our ancestors and forefathers.  However, after his prayers are answered, a talmid chakham should feel that God rewarded him for his own merits, thereby reducing his accumulated merit and thus diminishing him.


            While it seems obvious that humility is a positive virtue and it certainly is inappropriate to display hubris, it may not be an independent mitzva.  An interesting incident is recorded in the introduction of Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag) and reiterated in greater detail in mitzva 64 of his list.  After the author finished his compilation of the 613 mitzvot, he received a message in a dream that he had forgotten to include a principle, "Be careful lest you forget God" (Devarim 8:11, and see also Devarim 6:12).  He then realized that this is an important foundation of the fear of God.  Although the Rambam did not count this mitzva in his list, the Semag, who generally followed the list of the Rambam, realized that he should enumerate it as an independent mitzva.  After a while, the Semag saw that the gemara said (Sota 5a) that Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak utilized this verse (among others) to learn that it is forbidden to be haughty.


            The Sefer Ha-Yereim (332:22) cites Rav Yehudai Gaon, who says that there is a positive mitzva to be modest and humble.  Although the author (Rav Eliezer of Metz) saw no positive or negative commandment stated explicitly in the Torah, the Torah praises Moshe as being exceedingly humble (Bemidbar 12:3).  He infers from this a mitzva to be modest. 


Besides the obvious problem with this approach, that of implying an obligation from a particular statement, commentaries on the Yereim raise another objection.  It seems obvious that Moshe was praised as having an attribute which was unique.  How then could this statement be employed to require the average person to reach such a level?  Perhaps the Torah assumed an a fortiori argument: if Moshe Rabbeinu could be modest, every person could and should be humble.


            Rabbeinu Yona (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:34) finds another source in the Torah which forbids pride.  The Torah imposed certain laws and restrictions upon a king in order that "his heart not become haughty" (Devarim 17:19).  R. Yona adds that pride is one of the most severe transgressions which ultimately leads to perdition of the soul.


            Although the Rambam did not count pride or modesty either as a positive or negative mitzva, he certainly felt that modesty is an extremely important trait to possess.  In fact, Rav Aharon Soloveichik wrote that the reason that the Rambam omitted counting the mitzva of humility is precisely due to its importance.  The prohibition of pride is connected to the prohibition of forgetting God himself (as the Semag explained).  It is therefore a mitzva which encompasses the entire Torah.  Mitzvot that are all-embracing are not to be counted as one of the 613 mitzvot (Porach Mateh Aharon, Sefer Ha-Mada p.66). 


The Rambam states (Hilkhot De'ot 3:3) that one should be exceedingly humble, as the Torah adds the adjective "very" (me'od) when it describes Moshe's humility.  The Rambam cites Pirkei Avot 4:4, which says that one should be "very, very" (me'od me'od) modest.  Many commentators (Hilkhot De'ot 1:4, (Lechem Mishneh et al.) point out that the Rambam said (op cit.) that one should always take the middle road, "the golden path," in all characteristics, including modesty.  How then could he say that one must be "exceedingly humble?"


            Rav Menachem Krakovsky (Avodat Ha-Melekh, Hilkhot De'ot 3:3) raised an objection to the position of the Semag and the Yereim.  Inasmuch as there is a general obligation of emulating the attributes of God (imitatio Dei), why is there a specific commandment to be modest?  He then says that, according to the Rambam, the general halakha of imitatio Dei would require us to follow the golden mean.  The additional point (to be exceedingly modest) is merely a rabbinic law.


            To summarize: The Rambam feels that there is no specific biblical mitzva regarding pride and humility.  The Yereim thought that there is a positive mitzva to be humble, whereas the Semag and Rabbeinu Yona learn from different sources that there is a prohibition to be haughty.


            Rav Yona Mertzbach (Alei Yona p.195) pointed out that the different sources cited by the Semag and Rabbeinu Yona reflect a difference in their understanding of this law.  Rabbeinu Yona derives the prohibition from the injunction upon a king not to be proud of his lofty status and thereby denigrate ordinary people.  This implies that the basic rohibition of haughtiness is between man and his fellow man (bein adam le-chavero).


            The Semag, on the other hand, feels that the prohibition of pride is connected to man's relationship to God, as was pointed out in his dream.  Pride may lead to forgetting God Himself.  A person may feel that he earned and deserves the abundance of good that he has received.  Therefore, the prohibition is to be defined as one between man and God (bein adam le-makom).


            Obviously, the comment of the Vilna Gaon that one should always feel that "I have been diminished" goes hand in hand in with the position of the Semag.