Humility and Mount Sinai

January 13, 2000

8 min read


Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20 )

Why humility is the essential ingredient needed to receive the Torah.

The story is told of Novardok, the great 19th century European yeshiva, where the students were known for their great humility. To reach such levels, they would sit for 30 minutes each morning in the study hall, rocking back and forth, chanting the mantra, "I am nothing, I am nothing."

One morning, a new student arrived at the yeshiva, and upon entering the study hall, was surprised to find hundreds of students muttering, "I am nothing." He checked the sign outside the door to make sure he had the right place, then figured he might as well join them. After finding an empty seat, he began rocking back and forth, chanting, "I am nothing, I am nothing."

Suddenly the student seated next to him turns and says: "The nerve of you! I was here an entire year before I was nothing!"

The Humble Hill

The Midrash says that when God was preparing to give the Torah, all the mountains stepped forward and declared why they thought the Torah should be given on them. "I am the highest mountain," said one. "No," said another, "I am the steepest mountain and therefore the Torah should be given on me."

One by one, they all stated their claims. In the end, God chose Mount Sinai - not because it was the tallest or the grandest (it's not, as anyone who's toured the Sinai Desert will attest), but because, says the Midrash, it was the most humble.

What is this notion of "humility" and what does it have to do with Torah?

First, let's clarify what humility is NOT. Humility does not mean a meek reluctance to speak up or be assertive. Humility is not slouching your shoulders and having low self-esteem. The Torah (Numbers 12:3) refers to Moses as "the most humble person who ever lived" – yet he aggressively confronts Pharaoh, fights a war against Amalek, and stands up to castigate the Jewish people.

Humility Defined

Humility is to know one's place. In this week's Parsha, the Torah describes the arrangement of the 12 Tribes in the Israelite camp. After a long description of who will travel first, and who will travel last, the Torah says: "The people did exactly as they were instructed" (Numbers 1:54).

What's the big deal that everyone camped where they were supposed to? The Midrash explains that when God suggested the arrangement, Moses feared that by specifying which tribe travels in the East and which in the West, who in front and who in back, disputes wil break out between the tribes.

God tells Moses: Years earlier, at Jacob's funeral, his 12 sons carried the coffin. The way the sons were arranged around the coffin is the same way the tribes are to be arranged in the camp today. In this way, everyone is already clear as to his proper place. So don't worry, God tells Moses, because when someone knows their place, there is inevitably peace and calm.

This applies to our own lives as well. Our circumstances of birth and our talents (or lack thereof) to a great degree determine our choices. The higher a person becomes spiritually, the more humble he becomes - internalizing the reality of our tenuous mortality, and only God is eternal.

Moses was called "the most humble" because when he stood before God he knew his place. Anything else precludes room for God to fit in. That's why the Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship; both push away the presence of God.

Nose in the Air

In the secular world, the biggest personalities are often the most arrogant. Picture the scene: A movie star walks into a party – strutting, cocky, head raised. His mannerisms shout: "I am great and I don't need you or anybody else." The room is silent with awe. Charisma!

Judaism says this is counterfeit charisma.

True humility means living with the reality that nothing matters except doing the right thing. The humble person is not dependent on the opinion of others. Because sometimes doing the right thing is popular (and consistent with one's ego needs), and sometimes it's not. The humble person can set his ego aside, to consistently do the right thing.

An arrogant person, on the other hand, is less concerned about right and wrong – and more concerned about himself. He may appear smooth on the outside, while manipulating things around him to suit his self-centered needs.

In actuality, it is humility which guarantees charisma. The humble person has the ability to rise above his self-contained narcissistic envelope and embrace those around him. Since he confidently knows his place, he can leave space for others without having an ego crisis. He honors others and helps them find their place, too.

Judaism defines it like this:

  • "Arrogance" = I'm all that counts.
  • "Humility" = What's greater than me is what counts.

Forward or Back?

Unfortunately humility has gotten a bad rap. Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Humility is the ability to be objective about one's own position vis-a-vis others. If I am in the position to lead, then I should lead. And if not, I should defer. I know where I stand, and not take undo liberties. If I am in the presence of someone more knowledgeable, I think twice before speaking. There is nothing more annoying than an accountant standing in a roomful of doctors and pontificating on medical science.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa (19th century Europe) always carried two slips of paper – one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one paper was written the Talmudic statement, "The entire world was created just for me" (Sanhedrin 38a). On the other paper was written the words of Abraham, "I am but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27). In this way, the rabbi was reminded that there are times to step forward, and times to step back.

Rabbi Rafael of Barshad (19th century Europe) summed it up as follows: "When I get to heaven, they'll ask me, why didn't you learn more Torah? And I'll tell them that I'm slow-witted. Then they'll ask me, why didn't you do more kindness for others? And I'll tell them that I'm physically weak. Then they'll ask me, why didn't you give more Tzedakah? And I'll tell them that I didn't have enough money. But then they'll ask me: If you were so stupid, weak and poor, why were you so arrogant? And for that I won't have an answer."

Modern Model of Humility

A contemporary model of humanity Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l, the leader of American Jewry for much of the 20th century. In the introduction to "Iggros Moshe," his monumental compendium of responsa, Rabbi Feinstein writes: "I would not have volunteered for the job of leading the Jewish people. But since this is the role that God selected for me, I must oblige."

One day in the study hall, a visitor picked up the pay phone, and the voice on the other end asked to speak with Moshe Feinstein. The visitor then walked into the study hall and began shouting: "Moishy! Phone call for Moishy" – using an informal nickname for the great sage! Rabbi Feinstein calmly raised his hand and graciously accepted the phone.

Rabbi Feinstein's sister was once asked, "What makes your brother so special?" She answered: "What makes my brother special is that he never looks at himself as being so special."

Getting Practical

How do we achieve humility? The first thing a Jew does upon awakening in the morning is to say the Modeh Ani prayer: "I acknowledge you, God, for graciously returning my soul for yet another day. Thank you!"

Step one of humility is to put our relationship with God into perspective. We feel the "We," rather than the self-indulgent, negative energy. This makes us more relaxed, calm and flexible, which trickles down to all our interpersonal relationships: business partnership, marriage, community and nation-building.

More tools for gaining humility:

  • Read eulogies. They're a good dose of humility. They help us get perspective on the true meaning of life. Try to write your own obituary. For what do you want to be remembered?
  • Use humility to rise above arguments. You don't have to respond to every insult.
  • Ask a close friend to give you criticism. As we more clearly see our own faults, we are less likely to be arrogant toward others.

A crucial step to humility is found in the opening verse of this week's parsha: "And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert" (Numbers 1:1). The Sages ask a fundamental question: Why was the Torah given in a desert? Because a desert is empty. This means that to acquire Torah – to receive God's wisdom – one must first be willing to open up space inside.

The Maharal (16th century Prague) explains that the only way to learn anything is to first ask a question. A question creates a lack and a need – a space that the answer can then come and fill. But without first a question, there is no room for the answer

Parshat Bamidbar always falls out in conjunction with Shavuot, the holiday of reliving the Sinai experience. The message for us is to know our place, make some space, and let the truth of God and His Torah enter deep inside.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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