Introductory note: I was planning to post this d’var Torah before the British vote yesterday on whether to remain or leave the European Union, and decided to post it anyway after the fact because I believe that this decision to leave the EU will stoke an added measure of fear and uncertainty in the hearts of millions throughout the world, as is already reflected in the falling financial markets. This decision, for better or worse, will likely bring out the very worst in some people in Great Britain, Europe and the United States, as if we did not already have enough fear and anxiety as expressed in this presidential election campaign.
I know no completely righteous person in the sense that Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad Lubavitch who authored “The Tanya,” meant it. The Alter Rebbe (as he is known) delineates five moral/spiritual categories of people – the completely righteous (tzaddik gamur), the righteous (tzaddik), the completely evil (rasha gamur), the evil (rasha), and the “in-betweeners” (beinonim).
The vast majority of us are beinonim, and though many of us may strive to behave as a tzaddik (and even seem to be a tzaddik from the outside because of our kindness and good deeds), still the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) as opposed to the yetzer tov (good inclination) distracts and confuses us in our struggle to remain moral, kind, generous, empathetic, and spiritually pure.
The tzaddik gamur, the completely righteous person, is different from the ‘simple’ tzaddik in that still in the latter there is the taint of the evil yetzer. The complete tzaddik has successfully subsumed the evil yetzer in his/her heart and soul completely. Such a person is considered to be among the legendary 36 righteous human beings (i.e. lamed vavniks) whose presence in the world enables the world to survive. Such a person “pursues justice, loves compassion and walks humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8)
In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-a-lotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) it is written that Moses was “a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (12:3) The Hebrew word for ‘humble’ is anav and appears only one time in the five books of Moses – here. Given Moses’ extraordinary career as prince, shepherd, prophet, liberator, chieftain, military leader, and judge, it’s legitimate to wonder what “humility” meant as it applies to Moses. After all, Moses was hardly a shrinking violet. He was neither self-effacing nor lacking in confidence, nor was he a pacifist. He killed an Egyptian, challenged Pharaoh, crushed a rebellion, killed through the sword 10,000 of his own people after the incident of the golden calf, spoke face to face with God, broke the divinely inscribed tablets, argued with and challenged God.
This passage from Proverbs offers a sense of the meaning of anivut: “The effect of humility is awe of God, wealth, honor, and life.” (22:4)
According to the Biblical and rabbinic traditions, humility is based in an awareness of one’s self that comes about as a function of our awareness of God, that is, our perception of the creative intelligent unifying power in and beyond the universe that transcends human comprehension and inspires awe and wonder, gratitude, generosity and love.
The Talmud and Midrashic literature categorically condemn arrogance and close-mindedness, the opposite of humility. Rabbi Yochanan said in Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai’s name, “One who is arrogant is as though he worships idols.” (Babylonian Talmud, Sota 4b). Such a person is called a toevah – an abominator, someone who sees only him or herself and leaves no room for the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.
A story is told of an American professor of religion who wished to meet a particular Buddhist monk. After the westerner’s long and arduous journey, the monk received him on a mountain top where he lived and welcomed him to sit quietly with him on his mat. Tea was brought and placed before the two men. The monk began pouring the tea into a cup – and he kept pouring until the tea overflowed the cup and into the saucer. The monk continued pouring the tea as it spilled onto the mat. At last, the professor could maintain his silence no more and said, “Master – what are you doing? Can’t you see that the cup is full and tea is pouring out everywhere?”
“Aha,” said the wise sage. “So too are you so full of your own ideas that there is no more room for anything new or different.”
Such is the nature of arrogance. It is closed, rigid and intolerant, presumptuous, prejudiced, fearful, and hateful, angry, self-centered, and nasty at its core. It is motivated by the yetzer hara (the evil impulse). The opposite is anivut, humility, which is motivated by the yetzer tov (the good impulse).
Our world and nation are in desperate need of this virtue. May it be nurtured in us all.