Parshat Yitro: Humility- A Prerequisite for Receiving the Torah

Humility: A Prerequisite for Receiving the Torah

Rabbi Nadav Nizri is the Administrative Director of the Robert M. Beren Machanaim Hesder Yeshiva

In our portion, the Torah relates Matan Torah, the giving of the Torah; hence, I would like to discuss the unique quality of Har Sinai (or, more precisely, the quality our Sages attributed to Har Sinai): humility. 

These are the words of the famous Midrash that quotes the Tanna (Mishnaic scholar) Bar Kappara: 

“Bar Kappara explained as follows: What is the meaning of [the verse in Psalms] – ‘Why look you askance, mountains of humps?’  A Divine call sounded and said unto them – ‘Why do you wish to challenge Sinai?  You are all lacking and wanting in comparison to Sinai. As is written ‘mountains of humps’ [harim gavnunim]. A hunchback, giben, is considered a ba’al mum (one who has a blemish).  Rav Ashi says – an arrogant person is also considered a ba’al mum.”

It follows then that humility is a prerequisite for receiving the Torah.  A similar notion is expressed in the tractate of Derech Eretz (8:1):

“Why is the Torah likened to water?  In much the same way the water does not flow from a low place to a high place, but flows from a high place to a low place, so too, the Torah can be found among those who have a lowly spirit.”

Notwithstanding this demand for humility and “a lowly spirit”, we find, quite surprisingly, that in some instances, our Sages made statements which don’t seem to be in keeping with the words of the Mishna.  For example, when Rav Nachman bar Yaakov – an Amora (Talmudic scholar) of the second generation, who also headed the yeshiva in Nehardea (city in Babylon) – was told that another Amora had torn up the former’s shtar (lender’s deed), he responded thus:  “It’s as though a child has torn up my deed, because when it comes to monetary laws – all else are mere children in comparison to me.” Or another example relating to the words of Shimon ben Azzai (tractate of Bechorot 58:1):  “Ben Azzai says: In comparison to me, all the Torah scholars are inconsequential [“as a garlic peel”] except for this bald man (Rabi Akiva).”

One might think that the above examples are nothing more than slips-of-the-tongue on the part of the Tanna or the Amora.  However, from the way our Sages referred to these particular persons, it is quite evident that both were looked upon as exemplary and prominent figures in their time.  Of Ben Azzai we are told (tractate Berachot 57:2): “One who sees Ben Azzai in his dream should anticipate piety.” 

As to Rav Nachman, we are told in Ta’anit (5:2) that when he hosted the Amora from Eretz Yisrael, Rabi Yitzhak, the latter blessed Rav Nachman and likened him to a tree that has sent deep routes into an underground water source [“Ilan bemah avarecheka?”].  The words of this blessing are well-known: “As to you – with what shall I bless you?  With Torah?  You have Torah.  With wealth?  You have wealth.  With children?  You have children.  But may it be His will that your descendants be just like you.”

These descriptions leave no room for doubt: both Rav Nachman and Ben Azzai were considered to be role models.  Hence, the question must be asked:  If humility is a precondition for Torah – which is the very reason the Torah was given specifically on Mt. Sinai, the lowliest of all mountains, symbolizing humility, as noted by our Sages – how is it then that some of our greatest Torah scholars did not possess this very quality?  (There are numerous examples attesting to this throughout the Talmud.)

It is here that I wish to propose an entirely different take on humility.  In what might seem like a stark contrast to the Mishna we saw in the tractate of Derech Eretz, which stated that the prerequisite for acquiring Torah is “a lowly spirit” (the same notion is mentioned in the tractate of Avot, Chapter 5, Mishna 19), I would like to suggest that humility denotes understanding our strengths: no less (as in lowliness of spirit) and no more (i.e., having pride, which is considered to be a blemish, as explained above).

At the end of the tractate of Sotah, both the Mishna and the Talmud describe a process called ‘the decline of the generations’, which was set into motion by the destruction of the Temple, and continued after the death of the Tana’im, the great Mishnaic scholars.  The last Mishnaic portions in this tractate give an account of both physical and spiritual decline.  One particular kind of deterioration that is mentioned there relates to the qualities of humility and fear of sin:  “When Rabi died (Rabi Yehuda HaNassi, compiler of the Mishna), the qualities of humility and fear of God disappeared.”  The Talmud expands on the Mishna and says: “Rav Yosef remarked to the one who was learning these mishnayot: ‘Don’t say [there is no more] humility, because I exist, and I am humble.  Rav Nachman said to the one who was learning the mishnayot: ‘Do not say [there is no] fear of sin because I exist and I am fearful of sin.'”

It is evident from this discussion that some Amoraim attested to their being humble or fearful of sin.  Ostensibly, this is a paradox: if humility is a good trait, then one who attests to his own humility is filled with pride and cannot be humble!  However, in keeping with what I said earlier – our Sages wished to stress the point that we should steer clear of false humility.  Lowliness of spirit does not mean depicting yourself falsely.  Humility means knowing your own worth.

This definition for humility, a precondition for receiving the Torah, which involves neither self-deprecation nor self-glorification, reminds me of a saying by a Japanese Zen master, Eihei Dōgen Zenji (AKA Dōgen): “If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”  Dōgen is, in fact, telling us that in order to attain an illumination or understanding (in our case this would be receiving the Torah), we don’t have to try and find ourselves anywhere but in the here and now. 

In the sixth chapter of the tractate of Avot, the Mishna enumerates 48 ways through which Torah can be acquired.  The seventh is humility.  The twenty sixth is one who knows his worth.

May we all merit to attain humility which has neither arrogance nor any self-degradation.  Rather – such humility that makes us worthy of Kabbalat Torah, in that it acknowledges our worth. 

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