by R. Eliyahu Safran
In speaking to potential ba’alei teshuvah we often say, just do the mitzvah, just light the candles; the action will begin to suffuse the goodness into your soul. We know that if one waits for the inner motivation to be good and to do mitzvot… well, sometimes we have a long wait ahead of us! So, we focus first on the external, on the doing. In the case of doing mitzvot, this is a good thing. But in other ways, the emphasis on the “outer” sometimes trips us up.
To the extent we want to be good and decent, to be all the positive things our tradition and our community deem to be worthy, I often think that we expend even more time and energy on appearing to be good. Indeed, we devote so much time and energy on how our colleagues, neighbors and friends view us that it is a wonder that we have time to devote to our inner selves, to our souls. Each of us wants our students to think we are the wisest, most knowledgeable teacher; each of us wants our colleagues to think we are the most insightful practitioner; each of us wants our children to respect us as parents and not see us as fallible human beings. We want our neighbors to see our homes and families as beautiful and serene. And we bristle whenever anyone notes a flaw in our carefully constructed personas.
So, we build a psychological defense around ourselves to protect our sense of self. This defense often becomes an arrogance, one based on pride. We find ourselves focused more on the appearance of being good than being good.
How do we protect against this very human, and often self-diminishing dynamic? Our teachers tell us that it is only by moving through life in a posture of humility. This is particularly true as we begin to approach the Yomim Noraim when our inherent haughtiness and pride is a particular impediment to our acknowledgement of our frailties, weaknesses and failings.
Humility allows us to go against our natures and accept the criticism (both self-criticism and the criticism of others) that improves us as people and as Jews. But oh how we hate criticism! And oh how difficult is that humility, that self-effacement, for us!
Our tradition fully understands our need for and our resistance to criticism. That is why the Talmud teaches that Ezra ordained that we read the tochacha in Vayikra prior to Shavuot, so we may genuinely accept the Torah, and the tochacha in D’vorim before Rosh Hashanah, so we may effectively do teshuva.
The first step to teshuva is hakarat ha’chet, the recognition that we sinned. As Dr. Ilana Turetsky notes in referencing Chazal, “One who is humble has an easier time accepting constructive criticism from others and engaging in introspection with the goal of bettering oneself.” None of us is so self-aware as to be able see our own failings. We need a perspective from outside ourselves to see us as we are; we need the criticism of others. We need the Rabbi’s mussar . We need the loving observations of our wives and children and friends. We must hear criticism and then, in humility, do something about it. To truly hear and accept criticism and tochacha, we must possess humility and submissiveness. We must be humble enough to recognize that we all err and we must and can learn how to begin anew.
Rabbeinu Bachya explains that the Sages compared this recognition to impure earthen vessels which become pure only when they are broken. Man who originates from earth, afar min ha’adamah, is thus likened to an earthen vessel which once it becomes impure cannot regain its purity until it is broken. The broken spirit and soul similarly, regain for man his state of purity.
It begins with the humility that allows us to realize and accept that we are impure and imperfect; that we have shortcomings and must do teshuva.
The sticking point then is not the need for humility but our understanding of what humility is. The idea of bringing ourselves “low” runs counter to our very natures, which are focused on self-preservation. I think it would be helpful to “reframe” and understand anew what humility truly is and then, perhaps, it will be more easily embraced as a posture and a strategy for teshuva.
As Sefer D’vorim closes, God describes Moshe as the most humble man upon the face of the Earth. At the same time, the Torah is clear that Moshe was as close to God as is humanly possible, he had reached the pinnacle of human experience.
Why, of all the positive traits a person can have – intelligence, kindness, strength, wisdom, charity – was it humility that the Torah drew attention to? We associate humility with weakness and “smallness” and yet here it is clear that its power and importance cannot be overstated.
What gives? Is humility “big” or “small”?
It would be helpful, as Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen does in “The Guiding Light” (Aish.com) to look at the opposite of humility, to look at arrogance, for insight. Rabbi Gefen notes that the Talmud, “…describes God’s hatred for the arrogant person – God says that there is no room for Himself and the arrogant person to ‘reside together.’” Why not? Because, by definition, the arrogant person believes that he does not need God, that his own talents are sufficient for his success. The Talmud does not once, for a moment, suggest that the arrogant person does not have talent, not at all. At issue is whether those talents are “God given” or are sufficient to create a good, successful life.
The person who is humble is just the opposite. He understands that his talents are, in fact, God-given and that by tapping into gifts and strength of God it is possible to achieve once unimaginable things. Humility is not a path to “abasement” but a path to greatness.
Dr. Turetsky references some ba’alei mussar when she writes, “…humility does not entail denying one’s actual abilities; rather, humility involves the recognition that one’s qualities and strengths are an endowment from God and thus be channeled toward serving Him.”
There are some commentators who are troubled by Rav Yosef’s response to the Mishna that, “humility and fear of punishment ceased to exist when Rebbe passed away.” Rav Yosef said, “remove the word humility because [humility didn’t cease to exist], I am still humble.” [Sotah, 49b]
How, they wonder, can he claim to be so humble? Doesn’t the claim itself undermine any humility he claims to have?
But it is in Rav Yosef’s response that the truth of humility’s power comes to light. Authentic humility does not diminish greatness; it does not limit the great gifts, wisdom or insight an individual possesses. In fact, it glorifies them! Humility simply recognizes the truth that these wonderful gifts are God-given.
When we realize that the great things we do and are in life come from God, when we are humble, we can fully embrace our gifts knowing our ability to do teshuva. For doing teshuva is, essentially, getting ourselves “out of the way” of our greatness and embracing that our greatness is from and for God.