June 10, 2011
Rabbi Jason Holtz, Temple Emanu-El, Tucson, AZ
I'd like to give everyone some small amount of insight about what sort of kid I was. When I was twelve and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, I was busy learning my Torah portion, Ki Teitze, in the book of Deuteronomy. This Torah portion is unique in that it has the single most number of mitzvoth – commandments, or Jewish religious obligations. There are 74 of them – a considerable amount more than the Ten Commandments. The most important thing that most Bar Mitzvah students needs to realize about the number of mitzvoth in that Torah portion is simply that there are 74 possible subjects for a Bar Mitzvah speech. Unlike most B'nai mitzvah students though, who got to pick a section of their portion to talk about, my rabbi decided for me. He gave me one of the more challenging sections. It stated that if one has a wayward and defiant son, then he shall be brought to the public square and there be tried and executed. To this day, I wonder if my rabbi was trying to tell me something about my behavior as a child.
That section of Torah still challenges me today, and it does so for obvious reasons. It suggests capital punishment as a way of dealing with children's behavioral problems. It's absolutely ridiculous. If a politician suggested it today, they would never get elected. If a teacher or principal suggested it, they would be fired. But, here, the Torah itself suggests such a punishment.
Now, this is not a sermon about that Torah portion. We still have some time to get there. We have our own Torah portion this week, B'ha'alotecha, to talk about. I brought up Ki Teitze though because it is a great example of an instance when the Torah says something that contemporary Jews simply cannot accept. The truth is, there are many examples – whether it be about gender, or slavery, or something else. Often times, the Torah does not match up well with modern values. Sometimes, when it doesn't, we dismiss the Torah's teachings. But sometimes, the Torah teaches something important and vital that is not valued in contemporary society. When that happens, it behooves us to look to the Torah for guidance. This is a week when we get a teaching about something that is not valued as highly as maybe it ought to be nowadays. It is a lesson in humility. Humility, I believe, is in too short of supply in our world. In high schools and colleges, we get lessons on how to build a resume, how to sell ourselves and make ourselves seem great and important. Starting at a young age, people get Facebook accounts and the first thing it asks for you to do is list all the things you've accomplished and that you've done: Your education, your career. If you listen to many politicians, they will quickly give their vision for society, but it is hard for them to talk about any other viewpoints except in the most disparaging of terms. The importance of looking out for number 1 is often seen as sage advice. That is not the lesson in this week's Torah reading. Rather, the lesson is humility, and it comes from none other than Moses, who we are told was the most humble person ever. Of all of his qualities the Torah could single out, the only one it mentions specifically over and over again is how humble of a person he was. In our Torah portion this week, Moses' humility is on display in a few ways. The first occasion is when two individuals, Eldad and Medad, start to act like prophets. Moses could have taken Eldad and Medad's claims to be prophets as a threat to his own position. He could have been insecure in his own identity. In fact, many others around camp were quite upset with Eldad and Medad seemingly trying to fulfill a task that was Moses'. Joshua ben Nun, who was Moses' personal assistant and then eventually his successor said to Moses, "My lord, restrain them!" Moses' response was instructional, "Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all of the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord 's be spirit upon them!"
Moses' other instance of humility comes when his siblings, Aaron and Miriam, slander him and his wife and then go on to say, "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?" So first they attack his family and then they get to the heart of the matter – how Moses has more authority than either of them – a situation they seem displeased with. Moses does not challenge either of them though. Rather, the Torah says, "Now the man Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other person on earth." Moses doesn't challenge Aaron and Miriam at all. God does, but not Moses. Quite the opposite actually. Moses prays to God on Miriam's behalf.
I deeply admire the Torah's emphasis on Moses' humility—perhaps because it is a important character trait that seems to me to be underappreciated. I'd like to spend a moment or two talking about what humility is.
To possess humility does not mean that we think poorly of ourselves. It does not mean that we don't value our own achievements and accomplishments. It does not mean that we think everyone else is better than we are. Quite the opposite: humility isn't just about how highly or lowly we think of ourselves. It means how we think of ourselves relative to others. Perhaps the central mitzvah, the central commandment in the Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself. That mitzvah has two parts to it. Loving your neighbor, and loving yourself. Loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself is a rather meaningless statement if one doesn't have a certain amount of self-love. With that in mind, I think of humility as simply meaning we are not to think of ourselves as more important than others. And that includes people who may not have accomplished as much as we have, or have spent as long in school as we have, have as much money as we have, or have read as many books or articles or than others. Being humble means that we do not judge ourselves in comparison to others, but only in comparison to ourselves.
There are benefits to humility. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin teaches that humility is an important prerequisite for finding the truth. Humility allows an individual to study and learn from teachers with multiple viewpoints, even when they seem to go against what one believes. Humility allows us to learn a lesson from all people. The rabbis taught in Pirkei Avot, "Who is wise?" "The one who learns from everyone." From everyone – not just one cable television station that has a particular point of view, or one prominent teacher, or one's owns conclusions – from everyone. Humility is the recognition that each person has something to share, something to teach, a perspective that is all their own. In that way, one of the great paradoxes is that those who believe the most strongly that they alone posses truth and do not need to consult anyone else are the most handicapped in learning new truths or realizing their own limitations and flaws. Telushkin mentions another benefit to humility as well: it helps us to become more tolerant and accepting. When we encounter people who are different from us, we have two primary ways of understanding those differences. We can treat the differences as valuable diversity or as deviance. Now sometimes, we do encounter deviance. But humility allows us to recognize when differences are not a threat, but rather a treasure. The Talmud, in tractate Sanhendrin, states that when people make coins and stamp them from the same mold, they all come out the same. Every new quarter is identical to the next. But not so with God. God creates humanity out of a single mold, and yet each person is different. There was a teacher, Reb Zusya, who taught that when he dies and goes to heaven, he will not be asked, "Zusya, why weren't you more like Moses?" Rather, he will be asked, "Zusya, why were you not more like Zusya?" Each person has their own gifts. Each person is unique. Humility allows us to appreciate that uniqueness, those special gifts. The lack of humility causes us to feel either threatened by them or to discount their importance.
Bachya ibn Pakuda is one of the greatest Jewish sages and leaders of all times. Reform Jews might recognize one of his teachings that is repeated in our High Holy Day prayer book, "Days are like scrolls. Write upon them only what you want remembered." He was once asked, "How did you come to be accepted as the undisputed leader of your generation?" His response was, "I never met a person in whom I didn't find a quality in which they were superior to me." Bachya looked for a positive quality in each person, a quality that they truly excelled at. It's a model that we might be able to benefit from as well. Telushkin suggests that by following Bachya's advice, when we think of a person, the first thing that will come to mind is their positive attributes, such as "Oh, yes, Sarah, she's amazing. I saw how patient she is with her children; she never seems to lose her temper." Humility is allowing ourselves to recognize strengths in others.
This Shabbat, may we be inspired to learn from all people. May we open our hearts and minds to the gifts that other people bring into the world and into our lives.