Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Bemidbar 5763/ May 31, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Bemidbar 5763/ May 31, 2003
Pride and Humility

Rabbi Prof. Carmi Horowitz
The Midrasha for Women

The Sabbath preceding Shavuot, "the time of the giving of our Torah", brings up thoughts about the Torah and its study. Ex. 19:2, "Israel encamped there in front of the mountain," teaches how Israel prepared itself to receive the Torah. In the name of Rabbi Abraham Jacob of Sadagora it is said that sometimes the preparations for a mitzvah are more important than the mitzvah itself, for the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel the Torah, but the preparation for receiving it was done by the Israelites themselves.

The Torah was given on Mount Sinai, which is relatively low in comparison to the mountains surrounding it. From this the Sages deduced a connection between the Torah and modesty (Pesikta Rabbati, ch. 7, s.v. va-yehi ha-makriv):

"A man's pride will humiliate him, but a humble man will obtain honor (Prov.29:23)." A man's pride will humiliate him - as in Mount Tabor and Mount Carmel, that came from the ends of the earth and boasted, saying: We are tall, and the Holy One, blessed be He, will give the Torah on us. A humble man will obtain honor - that is Mount Sinai, humiliating itself and saying: I am low. Hence the Holy One, blessed be He, raised it up by honoring it, giving the Torah on that mountain. So Sinai had the privilege of the Holy One, blessed be He, descending on it and standing there, as it is written, "The Lord came down upon Mount Sinai..."

This trait of modesty which characterized the giving of the Torah also teaches how the Torah should be received in each and every generation and how it should be studied. Maimonides ruled (Hilkhot Limud Torah, ch. 3; cf. also Tractate Ta'anit 7a):

The words of the Torah are likened to water, as it is said, "Ho, all who are thirsty, come for water" (Is. 55:1), to indicate that just as water does not stand on a slope but flows down and gathers in the low places, so too the words of the Torah are not to be found in the crude, nor in the haughty, but in the lowly and humble, who follow in the dust at the feet of the Sages and remove all lustfulness and pleasures of the moment from their heart, and work a bit every day in order to support themselves - for otherwise what would they eat? - and all the rest of the day and night study Torah.

The rabbis, authors of aggadic and moralistic works, paid special attention to the subject of modesty and to the opposite trait - pride. Maimonides' approach, that in all traits one should take the middle road between the two extremes, is well known. However, when it comes to the trait of modesty there is no middle road (Hilkhot De'ot, ch. 2):

There are some ways in which people must not take the middle road, but must distance themselves as far as possible from one extreme; such is haughtiness, for there is no way for a person to be merely modest, rather one must be utterly humble. For this reason our teacher Moses is described as "a very humble man" (Num. 12:3), and not simply humble. Hence the Sages commanded that one should be extremely humble, and said further that those who hold themselves high and mighty deny G-d, for it is written, "lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your G-d" (Deut. 8:14). Further, they said [Sotah 5a] a person who has even the slightest measure of haughtiness should be excommunicated.

There is extensive ethical literature condemning the trait of pride. Homilists, commentators, and preachers have spoken out against this trait, just as it has been censured by other faiths and ethical systems. Few, however, have asked the realistic questions that follow from an approach that expects a person to diminish his self-importance and stature. What happens to the self-esteem of a person who trains himself to be humble to the extreme? What does a leader do, who needs characteristics that are not consonant with extreme modesty and humility to lead his people effectively?

Rabbi Menaham ha-Meiri, a Jewish thinker and halakhic authority who lived in Provence at the end of the 13th century, dealt with the subject of pride and humility in Hibbur ha-Teshuva (Treatise I, ch. 5). His approach reveals a complex understanding of the trait of pride.

Ha-Meiri raised a question with reference to the remark about Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, that "on the day Rabbi died, modesty passed" (Sotah 49a):

For all this, it is attested in the Talmud, Ketubbot 103b, that as he was dying he commanded his son who would succeed him as Nasi, to behave in that office with pride and authority, saying, "Behave exaltedly in your office of Nasi." How could someone who was known in his life for his extreme modesty command to leave after him the trait of pride, even at the moment of death, which is a time when every proud person becomes lowly and every haughty heart subdued?

This question led ha-Meiri to develop a theory of leadership that deals with the tension between modesty and majestic leadership. He proposed a scale of pride in which only one specific measure is the negative and undesirable kind of pride and the rest are traits that are close or similar to arrogant behavior, but are nevertheless necessary. As he put it in Hibbur ha-Teshuva:

I say further that this trait divides into four measures. The first is termed pride; the second, magisterial behavior or assumption of superiority; the third, self-esteem (yikrat ru'ah—see Prov. 17:27); and the fourth, dignity or refinement (silsul ha-middot or nekiyut ha-da'at).

The primary characteristics of the arrogant person, according to ha-Meiri, are extreme assuredness of possessing the Truth, and the desire to win over one's fellow and bask in the glory of another's disgrace. The proud and arrogant are not interested in the Truth, but in glory and power. Such a stance hurts a person's ability to study Torah, to accept the burden of the commandments and to function in society; thus pride is to be shunned and modesty commended.

The other three characteristics appear to approach pride or resemble it, but they are extremely necessary for human society. Some people naturally have leadership powers, and as ha-Meiri added, "community life must have a leader to survive and suffers when there is lack of leadership." It is the way of leaders to use dominion and lordship in order to establish the Truth, to maintain the community and to remove from people evil and harm. A ruler must hold sway above others in order to impose fear, which keeps away sin. At the same time, such a ruler can be humble in his own eyes, for humility and leadership do not contradict each other. Moses was humble, yet he had leadership talent, "to show utter zealousness regarding any ugly deed, rising to the utmost to wipe it out, as in the cases of the Egyptian and the Golden Calf." Ha-Meiri contrasted how Moses was modest even while showing leadership, whereas Aaron the priest was of lowly spirit, and this trait caused "softness and fear," as a result of which he was unable to prevent the sin of the Golden Calf.

Thus there is no contradiction between the humility of Rabbi and his commanding his son to "Behave magesterially in your office of Nasi, and cast fear over your disciples." In other words, yes to being modest, but no to having a lowly spirit.
What about the person who is neither king nor leader? Even respectable people have a minimum level of self-esteem appropriate to their status. Being yekar-ru'ah - literally holding oneself dear or having a sense of self-esteem - is especially befitting to scholars of the Law, who must not behave as laymen in such a way as would cause others to hold them in low esteem. The honor of the Torah must be protected, and therefore one's distance should be kept from the crude and simple. The basis for this ha-Meiri found in the gemara, Tractate Sotah 5b, that "a scholar of the Law should have one measure in eight of an eighth" of pride, "in other words, a trace." Proof of the rule (although there are exceptions), ha-Meiri derived from the following stgory in Tractate Hagigah 5b (ha-Meiri's comments on this text as found in Hibbur ha-Teshuva, p. 134, are enclosed in square brackets):

Rabbi and Rav Hiyya were walking along the way. Upon reaching a certain place they asked whether there were any young scholars of the Law there. They were answered, "Yes, there is a young scholar, but he is totally blind." Rav Hiyya said to Rabbi, "Stay here and do not go, so as not to bring disrespect on your office of Nasi; rather, I shall go greet him." But Rabbi protested to Rav Hiyya (wishing so much to hear the scholar) and went after him. When they parted from him, he (the scholar) said to them, "You came to see someone who can be seen but does not see; may it be G-d's will that you merit to see the Glory of G-d, that sees but is not seen."

Rav Hiyya said to Rabbi, "Whence did you learn to behave thus?" [I.e., to disregard your own honor and go yourself to meet others who were not your teachers, so that you are not really obligated to honor them, or to act as if you were paying a sick call, when they are not sick - instead of standing on your honor that they come to meet you?]. He answered him, "I heard from the sermon of R. Yaakov, that he was accustomed to go to his rabbi every day, but when he (R. Yaakov) grew old his rabbi told him not to feel sorry that he could not come to him because he had grown old." Said R. Yaakov to his teacher, "Is the verse (Ps. 49:10-11) 'Shall he live eternally, and never see the grave? For one sees that the wise die,' of little consequence? So, if one gains immortality by going to see scholars when they die [Editor's note: R. Yaakov interpreted these two verses midrashically, as if they said, one who visits the grave of scholars earns immortality for himself], so much the more so when they live!" [Meiri: Rabbi Hiyya was saying that Rabbi should behave in such a manner as not to make light of his own honor by going to greet a young scholar; but Rabbi made light of his own honor to pay homage to wisdom and hear the words of scholars.]

Rabbi Hiyya was concerned for the honor of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, that his office of Nasi not be taken lightly. Rabbi, however, believed that it was proper to go receive the blessing of a scholar and did not fear for his own honor. Ha-Meiri learned from this both the virtue of self-respect (yikrat ru'ah) in scholars, as well as the possibility of conceding and hiding this quality in the face of other virtues.

Another category includes basic self-dignity - "silsul ha-middot" or "nikiyut ha-da'at," which is to maintain a sense of virtue and is appropriate to every person. Behaving with dignity is not considered pride, rather it is the basic level of self-respect behooving of any person. Ha-Meiri called this, in accord with an Arab proverb, "Pride which leads to good actions," since it prevents a person from behaving basely and disgracefully. The practice of "those with dignity in Jerusalem (nekiye hada'at) not to sign on a contract (as a witness) unless they know who is signing along with them" (Sanhedrin 23a) provides the basis for this approach. Dignity and refinement are appropriate to everyone and are not an expression of pride or haughtiness. A person must not hold himself to be inferior or worthless; this is what the Sages meant in saying, "Do not be bad in your own esteem" (Ethics of the Fathers, 2, 13) for one who denigrates his own value is likely to begin acting basely, since the opposite of dignity is self-abasement - a trait which is likely to cause a person harm.

In conclusion, ha-Meiri stressed the importance of avoiding arrogance and pride, especially for those who wish to repent and who sometimes must go to the opposite extreme in order to attain the proper balance. Nevertheless, the scale of traits that are close to pride remains in its place, and keeping away from pride, while maintaining a sense of authority (for leaders), and self-respect and dignity (for all) serves to build a complex model for human behavior.