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.
Prepared for Internet
Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
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
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.
"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
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
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.
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
Ha-Meiri raised a question with reference to the remark about
Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, that "on the day Rabbi died, modesty passed"
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
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
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
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
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
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.