Be Humble, Be Wise

May 4, 2015

17 min read


Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2 )

"And Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai saying. Speak to Bnei Yisrael and you shall say to them 'when you will come to the Land that I am giving you and the Land will rest a rest to Hashem. For six years shall you sow your field...and on the seventh year a complete rest shall be for the Land...your field you shall not sow...(Vayikra 25:1-4)."

Chazal pose the following question: Why does the verse specifically tell us that Hashem told Moshe about the mitzvah of Shmitah on Har Sinai - all of the mitzvos were given on Sinai?! Chazal answer that this teaches us that just as the mitzvah of Shmitah was given on Sinai with all of its general rules, specific details, and subtleties, so too all the mitzvos were given on Sinai with their general rules, specific details, and subtleties.(1)

We may now ask a question of our own: What is the significance that all of the mitzvos were transmitted at Sinai with all of their general rules, specific details, and subtleties? Does it really make a difference when or where God told Moshe all of this information? Furthermore, why was Shmitah chosen as the prototype in this regard from which all the other mitzvos are derived?

Chazal have taught us that the reason Har Sinai was chosen to be the place for the revelation and the giving of the Torah is that it was lower than all the other mountains. This teaches us that in order to receive the Torah we must make ourselves humble. Hashem will only come, as it were, where you let Him in. Chazal likewise explained that Torah is compared to water because just as water flows to the lowest point, so too will knowledge of the Torah find its place of rest in someone who is truly humble.

When contemplating the prospect of amassing the entire body of Torah knowledge(2) and achieving mastery thereof - wherein one has the ability to bring all that knowledge to bear in fully clarifying the final psak of each and every halacha to its most minute detail - one may very well become quite daunted by the sheer enormity of the task that lies before him. Indeed, how could one possibly venture to attempt succeeding in such a task?

Chazal actually tell us that one who thinks this way is a fool, whereas a wise man says, 'I will learn two halachos today and two halachos tomorrow until I will learn the whole Torah in its entirety'.

Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg explained that one who is focused on the achievement of becoming a great Talmid Chacham will not necessarily experience joy in his learning, whereas one who is focused on the attainment of the actual Torah-knowledge will experience great joy in the act of learning. The former is not truly interested in Torah knowledge, per se, rather he is mainly interested in the prestige that comes along with being a great Talmid Chacham. The latter, though, is truly interested in the Torah knowledge that he is studying, realizing that it is the most valuable and precious possession one can own.

The former is not humble. He is self-centered and is mainly trying to achieve self-aggrandizement. Therefore, his focus is only on the end result of becoming a great Talmid Chacham. As such, it is difficult for him to truly enjoy the study of Torah, for he may well be daunted by the endless nature of the task, and can become overwhelmed by what may feel to him like interminable tedium. That being the case, it is much harder for him to succeed.

The latter however is not focused on himself. He loves Torah because he recognizes its inherently infinite value. As such, even acquiring the knowledge of one halacha fills him with joy and excitement. He is ecstatic to study "two halachos today and two halachos tomorrow" because it is the very act of studying the Torah and absorbing its teachings and wisdom that infuses him with vitality. He is extremely wise in realizing that "it is not upon you to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it" (3) - whether or not he actually winds up becoming a great Talmid Chacham is essentially irrelevant to him. What is relevant to him is that Hashem gave us an infinitely precious Torah and commanded us to keep and study its teachings. He studies "two halachos today and two halachos tomorrow" and eventually he will merit to know the whole Torah.

The humble man is the wise man because he recognizes that which is truly valuable and that which is merely like "fairy dust" that will blow away in the wind. Personal glory and prestige, he realizes, are fake and empty. They are meaningless. It is true acquisition of Torah knowledge that is the real value in life, and that which imbues the individual with true, inherent honor. Because his approach is one of humility and wisdom, he will indeed succeed in achieving the goal.

With this we can understand, at least in part, the significance of the fact that all the mitzvos were given at Sinai with all of their general rules, specific details, and subtleties. Hashem is telling us, "You wonder how it's possible to know all of the Torah in all of its myriad variety and detail? Take the Sinai approach and you will succeed." Be truly humble and shape your understanding with true appreciation of wisdom, and indeed will you succeed.

We can now also venture to understand why Shmitah is chosen as the prototype. Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg explained that proper observance of Shmitah demands an internalized awareness of the fact that it is Hashem who provides our sustenance, and that it is not the result of our efforts. If one thought that it is his efforts that "win the day", he would be unable to keep Shmitah because it would be sentencing himself and his family to starvation, or at the very least, intense privation.

Shmitah, then, is the powerful expression of the awareness that "it is Hashem who gives you strength to amass wealth" and the rejection of the thought that "it is my strength and the might of my hands that has achieved this wealth." (4) It would seem safe to say that the difference between one who realizes that Hashem is the provider and one who thinks that he is the provider is the difference between the humble wise man and the arrogant fool. Shmitah, then, is the real litmus test of true humility and wisdom; and, as such, is the fitting example to teach us this fundamental lesson of achieving Torah knowledge through humility and wisdom, through wisdom and humility.

But how does one go about attaining this approach of humble wisdom? What is one to do if one's heart feels primarily consumed with the desire for honor and prestige?

Chazal tell us that "one should always learn Torah and keep mitzvos even sheh'lo lishma, with an insincere motivation, for from within the state of lo lishma one will eventually come to a state of lishma,(5) for the sake of Heaven." Rashi explains that the state of lo lishma to which Chazal are referring is learning in order to receive honor and prestige. The only time one's learning is considered completely illegitimate is if one intends to disregard the dictates of the Torah that he learns and just wants to use Torah knowledge to engage in aggressive, confrontational besting of others (l'kanter). One who fulfills the dictates of his learning, though, just that his primary motivation is the kavod that comes to Talmidei Chachamim - although not the height of achievement whose reach is beyond the Heavens - is nevertheless a very worthwhile endeavor, one which reaches until the Heavens and will ultimately bring him to a state of lishma.(6)

But now it seems as if we have made a one hundred eighty degree turn! Now that we have discovered that even learning Torah out of a motivation for kavod is a very valuable undertaking, and that it will ultimately bring him to the higher level of lishma (!), then what need or reason is there to talk about the approach of wisdom and humility?! Even if one starts off from a point of self-centered glory-seeking he will eventually reach the end-goal anyway, so why bother emphasizing the need for endeavoring towards an approach of humility and wisdom?

In Even Shleima, it is quoted in the name of the Gra that the effect of Torah on one's soul is like that of rain on the soil. Just like the rainwater causes whatever seeds are in the ground to sprout and grow, so too Torah causes whatever traits are in the person to sprout and grow. Just like water will cause weeds and thorns to sprout if that is the type of seed that is in the ground, so too will Torah cause one's bad traits to swell and intensify if that is what the person has inside him. Therefore, just as one needs to ensure that the ground is sown with good, beneficial seed before the rain falls, so too must one fix his inner self and make sure that only good, positive traits reside in his heart before he waters himself with the words of Torah.

But how could that be? We just got finished clarifying that one who starts learning out of a selfish desire for kavod (honor) will eventually come to a state of learning lishma; but if the words of Torah only have the ability to nurture, cultivate, and stimulate whatever is inside him, how could the end result be anything other than a hideously arrogant megalomaniac?!

The answer is already alluded to in Rashi's words. Rashi did not simply contrast an "I'm not interested in hurting anybody, I just want my own kavod" attitude versus one whose primary goal is to climb the social ladder by trampling on others' backs; he also included the point of whether or not one intends to follow the dictates of his learning. If one's motivation would be categorically and exclusively the desire for glory he would not really bother keeping the dictates of his learning; and his approach would necessarily degenerate into one of kintur - using his knowledge to always knock down others in order to establish his dominance and prove his superiority. One who does fulfill the dictates of his learning, though, is obviously concerned with more than just his desire for kavod. If he feels the mandate and imperative of the Torah he has learned enough to carry it out, that by definition means that there is a point of fear of God within him that is alive and well; and it is that underlying pulse that keeps his desire for glory in check and does not allow him to deteriorate into a state of kintur.

The Jewish heart has an automatic, natural response to Torah. Because its deepest pure feelings emanate from the neshama - which is the most exalted creation that the Ribbono Shel Olam created and the one that is nearest and dearest to Him - it innately connects with and responds positively to the Torah's light and sweetness. Therefore, as long as it is not obstructed with an impassable barrier, the Jewish heart's exposure to Torah will necessarily bring the bearer thereof closer and closer to kedusha in every respect.

If one's conscious desire while learning Torah is exclusively to achieve aggrandizement of self at any cost - to the extent that he perceives trampling others as his primary means of getting what he wants - then he will not bother with fulfilling the dictates thereof; because in that moment he has completely blocked off his pure, inner goodness from connecting with the Torah. It is there - deep inside - but it cannot surface and connect. The only facet of his persona, then, that the Torah is able to contact and affect in that moment is his negative side. Therefore, it will chas v'Shalom serve as a sahm mahves for him by causing that negative aspect of him to swell and expand. It is about such a situation of learning for the sake of kintur that Chazal said that it would have been better for him to not have been created.(7)

This is not at all the case, though, with someone who - although may be motivated to learn at the current moment by his general desire for kavod - does have a conscious connection with his pure, inner point of goodness as manifest by the fact that he fulfills what he learns and does not use his Torah for kintur. Since this underlying pulse of ehrlichkeit and yiras Shamayim is able to find conscious expression, the Torah that he is learning is able to water it, nurture it, and cause it to flourish and grow.

On the other hand, though, the fact remains that the main consideration that is moving him is his desire for kavod, which of course is not a positive middah in of itself. So, it would seem that the Torah would also water that side of him, and perhaps it should overpower the watering of the positive side, similar to the way a field planted with 90% weeds and 10% beneficial seed would grow to become an overwhelmingly poor field. So, it is still quite difficult to understand, given this description, how lo lishma could ever really bring one to lishma.

But what if one were to plant 90% of the field with weeds that have a relatively much lower strength of growth rate compared to the beneficial seeds that were planted in the other 10% of the field? Then, although it may take more than a few seasons, eventually the beneficial seeds will overpower the weeds and the field as a whole will transform into something wonderful and good. Since the way Hashem runs the world is such that the positive facet of things can be up to 500 times stronger than the negative side, we can now readily understand how it could be that the conscious nekudah tehorah could indeed eventually overpower the tainted facet of one's personality such that one will eventually come to a general state of lishma.

Of course, a decisive factor in the alacrity and dynamic nature of this process is to what extent that pure nekudah within is allowed to surface during the actual moments of learning. This is why we need to be alerted to the imperative of deliberately endeavoring to embrace an approach of humility and wisdom; because, yes, even learning lo lishma will necessarily eventually bring to lishma - but how long will it take, and to what level of lishma will one reach? If from within the lo lishma, though, we consciously desire and struggle towards lishma we will attain it that much more swiftly and to a much greater extent.

Yet another and perhaps the most important reason why we need to be consciously aware of the need to move towards the approach of wisdom and humility is in order that one not make the tragic error of forcefully impeding the natural progression from lo lishma to lishma by deliberately and vehemently holding fast to one's desire for kavod.

The key, then, is to try to as much as possible to not bring one's poor traits into the actual learning itself, and to try to let go of the desire for kavod during the actual moments of learning. Even if it is that desire for kavod that got you to the shtender, you can nevertheless let go of it during the actual learning. While you are actually learning, try to just forget about everything else - don't worry about the kavod, it'll eventually come on its own - and just focus your attention and concentration on the words of Torah that you are learning. Allow yourself to appreciate and enjoy them, to experience their wisdom and value. When one manages to do that, he is essentially touching the inner point of lishma, bringing it to the surface, and allowing the Torah to water it so that it grows and becomes that much stronger of an overall force within him.

Perhaps for the overwhelming majority of the learning seider one will not manage to let go of the desire for kavod save but for one solitary moment. In that isolated moment, though, his heart comes into full, unadulterated intimacy with the Torah, and its life-giving water saturates and nourishes his essential quality of yiras Shamayim, humility, and wisdom. That moment of lishma purifies and is mekadeish the entire limud. And even if one feels that he did not succeed in reaching even that one moment, he still has the inestimable value of the learning that he did in addition to his inner longing for lishma and the exertion expended to at least try to touch it - and that also has the power to greatly accelerate and amplify the effects of the process towards lishma. But the truth is that such an impression is actually an error, because when one assiduously applies oneself to learning Torah, it is impossible that one will not have occasional moments of lishma - those moments definitely occur, perhaps without one noticing.

It is also crucial to recognize that the progression from lo lishma to lishma is not like a rocket ship that just needs to break the Earth's orbit and then its free sailing; not at all. It is a dynamic, ongoing process with constant ups and downs that is similar to a stock's graph chart. The nature of a stock - any stock - is that it sometimes has extreme upsurges, sometimes it has precipitous falls, sometimes it holds steady, and sometimes it climbs painstakingly slowly. Since the human being is a complex, living entity, there exists a constant state of flux with all different types of stages and phases, much like the graph chart. Therefore, there is never a point at which one will be able say, "Ok, I'm there! I've reached lishma and now it's free sailing from here on!" It is a constant struggle; it is an ongoing undertaking. We should always take advantage of whatever acceptable, albeit lo lishma, motivation can get us to the shtender - irrespective of the stage or phase of life we are in - while at the same time always trying to let go of that lo lishma consideration as much as possible once we are actually engaged in the limud so that we don't schlep the poor traits into the actual limud itself, and just allow - as much as we can - our purely good side to surface and connect with the Torah's wisdom and infinite light.

When we try our best to proactively embrace the Sinai approach of humility and wisdom we thereby avert potential disruptions to the natural progression of mi'toch sheh'lo lishma bah lishma, and we thereby take full advantage of that process by infusing it with our own dynamic energy.

"V'es tznuim chochmah, with the humble is wisdom (Mishlei 11:2)."


1. Rashi Vayikra 25:1.

2. This is referring, of course, to the finite aspect of Torah. Namely, all of the basic works from Tanach to Mishna Brurah. In reality, though, Torah is absolutely infinite. Just as Hashem is infinite, so too is His wisdom, for He and His wisdom are one. The depth of analysis, further analysis, derivation, extrapolation, etc. goes on forever; literally. We actually - as much Torah knowledge as we may acquire - don't even begin to scratch the surface.

3. Avos 2:21.

4. Devarim 8:17.

5. Pesachim 50b.

6. Pesachim ibid.

7. Brachos 17a.

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