A Treasury of Humility
Translated by Kaeren Fish
In the Selichot, we recount:
It was You Who descended in the cloud of Your glory upon Mount Sinai and showed the ways of Your goodness to Moshe, Your servant. You revealed to him the ways of Your kindness and made known to him that You are a merciful and compassionate God, longsuffering and abundant in lovingkindness, greatly beneficent and directing the entire world with the attribute of mercy, as it is written: “And He said, I shall cause all My goodness to pass before you, and I shall proclaim the Name of God before you, and I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious, and show mercy to whom I shall show mercy” (Shemot 33:19).
God promises Moshe that He will cause all His goodness to pass before him. What this means is that Moshe will be able to perceive, with his intellect, God's providence over the world and His attributes of mercy and kindness, and not just the names and descriptions given to them. God showed Moshe His guidance of all generations, and His constant mercy.
As part of the revelation of His control of the world, God also showed Moshe the reward in the World to Come. The midrash teaches:
“And I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious” (Shemot 33:19) – At that time God showed [Moshe] all the treasuries of reward that await the righteous.
He said to Him, “Master of the universe, to whom does all of this treasure belong?”
[God] answered him, “To those who perform righteousness.”
“To whom does this [treasury] belong?”
“To those who feed orphans,” and so on, for each and every treasure.
Eventually he saw one great treasury and asked, “To whom does this belong?”
[God] told him, “Those who have [earned their reward] – I give them of that which is theirs; those who have not [earned any reward] – I give them for free, as it is written, ‘I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious.’” (Midrash Tanchuma [Buber], Ki Tisa 16)
The last treasury that Moshe sees is the treasury of free gifts – a treasury set aside for “those who have not,” and to whom God gives “for free.” The first time I read this midrash, I imagined tens of thousands of people standing at the gates of this treasury. Who would not want a free reward?
On second thought, however, the reality may be different. Perhaps the line at the gate of the free treasury is not so crowded. Very few Jews sporting kippot are there – after all, the treasury is meant for those "who have not," and we do not imagine that we fall into that category. Of what use is it to us? Suffice it to have a quick look at our literature and our media once in a while: the impression we get is one of self-satisfaction – how much we have, how spiritually and culturally rich we are! Those "who have not" must surely belong to some other sector; we are among those who "have." Such views are spreading in our community.
Seemingly, there is some justification for this view: we study Torah, we put on tefillin, we observe Shabbat; in comparison with other communities, we are entitled to claim that we "have." However, it is specifically here that we must exercise humility and undertake genuine self-evaluation. Such humility is not only a virtue in itself, not only a trait that counters pride. It is also a fundamental precondition for any viddui, any confession, and in fact – for any prayer that is recited with genuine intent. A person who wishes to elevate himself, or even just change something within himself, not to remain in the same place, must be humble. Some people bring about truly revolutionary change in their lives, like Rabbi Eliezer ben Dordaya (Avoda Zara 17a), who came to the realization that "It depends only on me." But even smaller, easier, more modest changes require true humility.
What is humility? Ramchal explains that it is the recognition that even if we possess intelligence, we should not be proud of that which is our "inborn nature":
The factor that is responsible more than any other for a person's coming to feel self-important and proud is wisdom. This is so because wisdom is a superior quality of the person himself, a function of his most honored faculty, intelligence. But there is no sage who will not err and will not need to learn from the words of his friends and, very often, even from those of his disciples. How, then, can he pride himself in his wisdom? In truth, one who is possessed of an honest intelligence, even if he has managed to become a toweringly great sage, will see, when he looks into the matter, that there is no room at all for pride and self-importance. For a man of intelligence, one who knows more than others, acts only according to the dictates of his nature, as it is natural for a bird to fly, and as it is dictated for an ox to pull with his strength. One is wise only because his nature has led him to be so. (Mesillat Yesharim, chapter 22)
Ramchal's teaching goes to the heart of what we discussed above. If we are observant Jews because we were born into religious families and received a religious education, does this make us worthy of some sort of reward? Have we added anything of our own? Is all that we do not simply part of our "nature"? Someone who is born into a religious family, or a religious social environment, is not entitled to believe that he is assured a place in the Garden of Eden. If one has been fortunate enough to have such a background, then more is expected of him! In order to meet this expectation, Ramchal explains, one requires true humility.
The Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was "exceedingly humble, more than any other person upon the face of the earth" (Bamidbar 12:3). Apparently, Moshe's humility expressed itself in the fact that he did not view himself as being greater than his brethren. He understood that he had been privileged to grow up in Pharaoh's palace, and to experience God's revelation at the burning bush. Had someone else been through all of this, Moshe thought, he surely would have been even greater than me! Such humility is a fundamental condition for Divine service.
A psalm unto David: Lord, who shall sojourn in Your tent; who shall dwell in Your holy mountain? He who walks uprightly and acts justly, and speaks the truth in his heart. He who does not slander with his tongue, nor cause any evil to his fellow, nor take up a reproach against his neighbor. A vile person is despised by him, but he honors those who fear God; he swears to his own hurt and does not change. He does not lend out money with interest, nor take a bribe against the innocent; he who does these things will never be moved. (Tehillim 15:1-5)
The Gemara (Makkot 24a) teaches that when Rabban Gamliel read this psalm, he would weep. Why? Did he ever lend money with interest? Did he not "walk uprightly and act justly"? The Gemara explains that Rabban Gamliel was indeed endowed with fine attributes, but he did not develop these attributes to their fullest: he did not "walk uprightly" as Avraham did; he did not "act justly" as Abba Chilkiya did; he did not "speak the truth in his heart" as Rav Safra did, etc. Concerning this last comparison, Rashi elaborates:
This is what happened: Rav Safra had a certain article that he was trying to sell. A person appeared before him while he was reciting the Shema, and said, “Give me that article for such-and-such sum.” He did not answer, because he was in the midst of reciting the Shema. The buyer understood from this that he was unwilling to sell it for that price, so he said, “Give it to me for such-and-such amount more [than the original price].” After he had finished reciting the Shema, [Rav Safra] said to him, “Take it for the price you mentioned in the beginning, for I had intended to give it to you for that price.” (Rashi, Makkot 24a)
The story illustrates how far the matter may be taken. We are accustomed to viewing such concepts as justice, truth and uprightness in terms of the social norms of our own times and our environment. But what is actually required of us is the tears of Rabban Gamliel, who wept upon realizing that he did not sufficiently meet the criterion of "walking uprightly" and "acting justly."
The Gemara goes on to say that Rabban Gamliel’s colleagues tried to console him, pointing out that the concluding verse of the psalm does not read, "He who does all of these things," but rather "he who does these things" – meaning, he who possesses even one of these virtues. However, even this – the full and complete implementation of even one single virtue – is not something that the average person manages to achieve.
There is another aspect to humility, which pertains specifically to prayer. When we turn to God in prayer, it is important that we approach with humility, asking that He do whatever is right in His eyes, whatever He knows to be good, rather than asking Him to help us as we believe is right. The Yerushalmi relates concerning Bar Kokhba:
When he would go out to battle, he would say: “Master of the universe – do not help us, and do not hinder us!” (Yerushalmi Ta’anit 5:5)
Bar Kokhba told God, quite bluntly, to "stay out of things." He was completely sure of himself and his strategy in the battle against the Romans. He was so convinced of his power and assured victory that he believed that Divine intervention could only "mess things up," heaven forefend.
A prayer such as that of Bar Kokhba is of no value. If we are praying, but at the same time completely certain that what we know, what we plan, and what we want is right, then we are not really praying but rather showing brazen insolence before God.
When one isn’t praying, it is generally good to have a clear approach to life, according to which one conducts himself and acts upon his environment. But when it comes to prayer, we must say, "Master of the universe – do what is right in Your eyes!" Do we really know what is truly good for Am Yisrael? Sometimes we attain something that we wanted very much, and we are certain that it is a positive achievement, but ultimately it turns out to be a great disappointment. On the other hand, it sometimes happens that a possibility that we had feared greatly becomes a reality, and turns out to be the best thing that could have happened. What appears to be the shorter road is often the longer one, while the seemingly longer road sometimes leads us to our destination more quickly. The humility discussed above must therefore find expression in our prayers before God.
The history and development of Knesset Yisrael, and the history and development of the State of Israel, are not like those of other nations. Zekharia declares in his prophecy,
So says the Lord of Hosts: Old men and old women will yet again dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, each with his staff in his hand for old age. And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing in its streets. (Zekharia 8:4-5)
What is so special about this prophecy? After all, the presence of boys and girls, old men and old women, is quite a normal phenomenon everywhere else in the world. However, the prophet continues and says:
So says the Lord of Hosts: If it is marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this nation in those days, it will also be marvelous in My own eyes, says the Lord of Hosts. (ibid., verse 6)
This reality is truly marvelous! That which is altogether natural and banal in Switzerland, France or anywhere else in the world, is not natural for us. Our entire history shows that Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael follow a marvelous and unique course.
Therefore, we pray to God and tell Him that He knows what is best for Am Yisrael. We, for our part, pray with humility, and with the hope that God will hear our prayers.
May it be God’s will that we merit a good year, a year of life and peace, a year of spiritual awakening. May we be able to stand at the gates of the “treasury of free gifts” and say to God, "We have not"; may we pray with humility. Perhaps then God will grant us a spiritual awakening, and salvation for each individual and for the nation as a whole, and inscribe and seal us and all of Israel for a good year.