This week we open Torah to the Book of Leviticus and, if we peer into a sefer Torah (the hand-written scroll), we see what appears to be an error: the last letter of the very first word (ויקרא “He called”) is written smaller than the other letters:
Sloppy penmanship? While we do not know the origin of the small aleph, the traditional explanation of its meaning is that the undersized aleph is Moses’ expression of humility. Aleph is the first letter of אני (“I”)—and Moses diminished its size out of humility, as if to say: God’s word is what is important, not mine.
Our Sages speak often and eloquently about the importance of anavah (“humility”). The Rabbis revered Abraham, Moses, and Hillel for their humility and held them aloft as exemplars. In pleading with God on behalf of the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham addressed God, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Moses, the paradigm of a leader, prophet, and sage, is considered the most anavah (“humble”) of all people. Talmud recounts (Pesachim 66a) that when Hillel comes to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) from Babylonia he is asked whether the laws of the Passover sacrifice override shabbat (i.e., may the paschal lamb be sacrificed on shabbat). He responds, employing logical reasoning, and is instantly elevated to the position of Nasi, president of the Sanhedrin. No sooner is Hillel designated the leader of the Jewish community than he is asked another question: If one forgets to bring the knife to slaughter the Passover offering to the Temple prior to shabbat, what do we do, since carrying the knife on shabbat is forbidden and does not override shabbat? Hillel, the newly selected leader, responds openly, honestly, and with deep humility: I don’t know; let’s see what the people do. And sure enough, the answer becomes evident when they walk outside and see that one man has inserted the knife into the wool of the sheep and another has placed it between the horns of a goat, both allowing the animal to carry the knife to the Temple.
Surely a strong and healthy ego is a good thing. Without it, one cannot survive, let alone thrive. But as a master of Musar (Jewish ethics) Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov (1749-1826) reminds us: “Human self-adoration is the strongest love that God implanted within the animal spirit…” (Cheshbon ha-Nefesh). This is both an acknowledgement that a robust ego is a gift from God, and simultaneously an unequivocal warning that excessive ego is a dangerous pitfall, turning a human being into a self-absorbed animal.
Self-worship is all too common. Equally common is the desire to be adored by others. Musar teacher Alan Morinis (Everyday Holiness) tells a wonderful and funny story about this. Once, after finishing a talk, a woman approached him and began, “You have a wonderful, wonderful…” but then could not finish her thought. Morinis says that he imagined her completing the sentence, “way with words” or “presence.” He could virtually taste the adulation that was surely on the tip of her tongue. When the woman found her words and completed her thought, however, she said: “…wife.” And so we do well to hold close the admonition of Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th century author of Chovot ha-Levavot, “Duties of the Heart”), “All virtues are dependent on humility.” Humility is the gateway to developing other traits we would wish to have.
But it is not enough to appear humble. In fact, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (in Midot ha-Re-iya) pointed out that phony humility is detrimental to our wellbeing, and the difference between feigned humility and the real thing is not difficult to discern:
Genuine humility and lowliness increase health and vitality, whereas the imaginary (humility) causes illness and melancholy. Therefore, one ought to choose for oneself the traits of humility and lowliness in their clear form, and thus become strong and valiant… Whenever humility brings about melancholy, it is invalid. But when it is worthy, it engenders joy, courage and inner glory… At times we should not be afraid of the feeling of greatness, which elevates a person to do great things. And all humility is based on such a holy feeling of greatness.
How, then, do we cultivate genuine humility? I love the way Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein expressed it: “Genuine anava [humility] says, ‘I am capable of doing much more, and therefore I must.’” Rabbi Krumbein reminds us that when we convert ego into a sense of obligation, we avoid excessive self-importance and retain the pure core of humility. The focus is not on our assets, but rather how we can use what we have to bless others.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman