Weekly Torah Commentary – Shoftim September 9, 2016

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

When [the king] is established on his royal throne, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this Torah … It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to be in awe of the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not feel superior to his brethren or turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time in the midst of Israel. (Deut. 17:18-20)

In these verses, the queen of all virtues is highlighted: ‘[he] shall not feel superior to his brethren’. 

Many people have misconceptions about humility. To be humble is not about beating yourself up or letting other people put you down.  It is not low self-esteem, nor is it the opposite of confidence. In fact, only the truly humble person thinks and acts with confidence because he understands his utter dependence on the goodness of God.

Humility is not just a virtue; it is the root of all other virtues.  A lack of humility is at the root of every character defect and failure for it is the ego [pride] that causes us to choose our own way and our own opinion over God’s.

In this regard, we do well to remember Isaiah’s warning:  ‘My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts, says the LORD. And My ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts, higher than your thoughts.’  Isaiah 55:8-9

The seemingly insignificant events of daily life are the tests of our humility.  It is in the simple things of every day that our humility – or the lack thereof – is demonstrated.  You see, it is not enough to assume a humble countenance before God in times of prayer.  Humility before God is proven in our interactions with our fellowman.  This is why the king of Israel is commanded to keep God’s Word with him at all times and to meditate on it continually.

The ‘Me’ in all of us is a tyrannical, demanding person. It will always want the highest place amidst others and feel indignant or ‘wounded’ if another is preferred over ourselves. Nothing dies harder than our tendency to think more highly of ourselves than we ought. By contrast, the humble person is easily able to rejoice when others are honored and generous in giving praise where praise is rightly due.  He is not jealous nor is he threatened by the achievements and success of another.

Humility is essential to faith. For what is biblical faith?  The utter confidence that there is a God in the heavens who loves and cares for us and has created us with a purpose and a destiny.  Faith is quiet but immovable confidence in His covenant and His goodness. By its very nature, faith demands humility.

Strong intellectual convictions without humility in the heart lead to arrogance and attitudes of superiority.  Did not the prophet Micah remind us: O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and what He requires of you. To do justice, to love righteousness and to walk humbly with your God Micah 6:8

If a king or leader, whom all are taught to honor and respect, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his brethren” – how much more so the rest of us. Moses, the great leader of the Jewish people, was “very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the earth” Num. 12: 3?

We have just entered the Hebrew month of Elul; thirty days of preparation for the great Festival of Trumpets which this year begins at sundown on October 3rd.  Elul is the month of repentance, of pausing to take an internal inventory.  How have we progressed spiritually in the past year? In great measure, the answer to that question is founded on how we have grown in humility – or not.  For it is out of the humble heart that spirituality flourishes.

In Tune with Torah this week = as we search our hearts in preparation for Yom Teruah, the Festival of the Blowing of the Shofar, also called Rosh Hashana, the issue is not so much to analyze each outward deed but to get to the heart of the matter – is the root of my personal behavior self-focused or God-focused?  Self-serving or God-serving? Prideful or humble?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Shoftim August 20, 2015

Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9

In this week’s Torah lesson we read a fascinating instruction to the king.

“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deut. 17:18). The passage furthur instructs the king that he must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never break God’s commandments. But there is another reason also: so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” or as another translation puts it: “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers”.

In short: The king was required to have humility. The most powerful in the land should not feel himself to be the most powerful in the land.

To be sure the king is given other commandments and Solomon’s failures can be directly traced to the deterioration of the humility which he so beautifully exhibited at the beginning of his reign.

When any leader, religious or political, begins to feel that because he is ‘above’ the people he is also ‘above’ the law, that nation or group will soon have a tyrant or dictator at the helm. The Bible knows nothing of leadership without humility. Ultimately, the arrogance of power will produce its own downfall. It is inevitable and history proves it to be so.

The Torah’s insistence on humility is much more than an urging to “be nice”. Humility is essential to leadership. Maimonides, the great Jewish sage, commented as follows:
Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to respect him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ (Ps. 109:22). Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Deut. 17:20).

He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, as it says, “Listen my brothers and my people….” (1 Chronicles 28:2), and similarly, “If today you will be a servant to these people…” (1 Kings 12:7).

He should always conduct himself with great humility. There was none greater than Moses, our teacher. Yet he said: “What are we? Your complaints are not against us” (Ex. 16:8). He should bear the nation’s difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant. (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6)

The Torah model of God-fearing leadership is Moses who is described as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

Moses was hardly meek, timid or bashful. Rather Moses refused to ‘lord it over’ the people. He honored those under his charge, considered them important and pleaded with God on their behalf. Humility doesn’t mean demeaning yourself; it means properly honoring others. We read in the Ethics of the Fathers: “Who is honored? One who honors others.” Pirkei Avot 4:1

God’s love and care extends to all, regardless of rank or position. We, and especially a leader, must do likewise.

Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said: “The greatest source of sin is to forget we are children of the king.” We are all members of a royal family and must act as if we are. And the mark of true royalty is humility.

In Tune with Torah this week = examining our own attitude toward others whether we are leaders or not. Do we readily honor and respect other people? Even when their opinions differ from ours? The humble are more concerned with giving honor to others than receiving it for themselves. True greatness is manifest by humility.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Be-halot-cha June 5, 2015

Numbers/Bamidbar 8-12

Towards the end of this week’s reading, God Himself describes Moses as ‘very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.’ Of all the character traits a person can have, why did God choose this particular one to emphasize?

One of the greatest and most succinct quotes I’ve heard on the subject is this one by the late John W. Stott: “Pride is your greatest enemy, humility is your greatest friend.” For the good of our souls, we need to gain a clearer understanding of pride and humility and how to forsake the one and embrace the other.

There are many biblical examples of pride and its consequences in the lives of individuals, and they offer valuable lessons. One of the more notable is that of Uzziah. When he became king of Judah at age sixteen, he set his heart to seek God and put himself under the spiritual mentorship of Zechariah. And “as long as he sought the Lord, God made him to prosper” (2 Chron. 26:5). As a result, he acquired wealth and also became politically and militarily powerful. Then things changed. “His fame spread far, for he was marvelously helped, till he was strong. But when he was strong, he grew proud, to his destruction”

There are hints in the text that at some point along the way, he stopped seeking the Lord and exchanged his dependence on Him for a growing reliance upon himself and his own strength and wisdom. It is easy to become arrogant when we become stronger, more successful, more prosperous, or more recognized if we forget that all we have comes from God.

As a result of all his blessings, Uzziah, rather than humbling himself in thanksgiving before the Lord, developed an exaggerated sense of his own importance and abilities. This pride of heart led to presumption before God and brought very serious consequences upon him, illustrating the biblical warnings that pride leads to disgrace (Prov. 11:2) and that “pride goes before destruction” (Prov. 16:18).

Interestingly, a famous Harvard psychologist, Gordon Allport, observed,
Any neurotic is living a life which in some respects is extreme in its self-centeredness… the region of his misery represents a complete preoccupation with himself. The very nature of the neurotic disorder is tied to pride. If the sufferer is hypersensitive, resentful, captious, he may be indicating a fear that he will not appear to advantage in competitive situations where he wants to show his worth. If he is chronically indecisive, he is showing fear that he may do the wrong thing and be discredited. If he is over-scrupulous and self-critical, he may be endeavoring to show how praiseworthy he really is. Thus, most neuroses, are, from the point of view of religion, mixed with the sin of pride.

So – how are we to view ourselves? How do self-respect and humility walk hand in hand?

Specifics will vary from person to person, but certain things are common to us all. We are God’s creatures: we are small, finite, dependent, limited in intelligence and ability, prone to sin, and subject to death.

But we are also God’s children: created, loved, and blessed far more than we deserve because of His grace and kindness. We are gifted by God with certain unique abilities, resources, and advantages, which are to be used for his glory. These truths we must never forget or cast aside.

Having a right view of God and ourselves has a profound effect on our relationships with others. Preoccupation with self has become epidemic in our world and nourishes a profoundly narcissistic culture. Repenting of self-centeredness and returning to the biblical principle of loving and serving our fellow man is not an option for those who love God and want to walk in His ways.

Truly, humility is our greatest friend. It increases our hunger for God’s word and opens our hearts to his Spirit. It leads to intimacy with God, who knows the proud from afar, but dwells with him “who is of a contrite and lowly spirit” (Isa. 57:15).

In Tune with Torah this week = Developing the identity, attitude, and conduct of a humble servant. It does not happen over night. It is rather like peeling an onion: you cut away one layer only to find another beneath it. But it does happen if we willingly choose – willingly look for – opportunities to humble ourselves. It is a lifetime journey, this path to humility, but a journey well worth pursuing for humility is the crown of all the other virtues.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Vayeira November 7, 2014

Genesis/Bresheit 18-22

After the beginnings of human history yielded several examples of the misuse of the gift of free choice, a new figure comes on the scene: Abram, who will eventually have his name changed to Abraham.

As we are introduced to him, he is commanded to leave his land, birthplace and father’s house and travel “to the land I will show you,” but why? What does God want him to do there? What is his calling?  What is so special about him that warrants his becoming the father of many nations? We are not initially told.

At the root of the failures of Adam and Eve, and of Noah’s generation was a failure of responsibility.  Abraham stands out as very different.

One of the first things we notice about him is that he, by contrast to his predecessors, does demonstrate personal responsibility.  When his servants and the servants of Lot begin to quarrel, Abram steps forward with a solution:

Abram said to Lot, “Let there not be a quarrel between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are brothers. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left.” (Gen. 13: 8-9)

Unlike many of us, Abraham does not pass judgement; does not debate about whose fault it is or who started the argument.  He does not even concern himself about who will end up with the better deal! He sees the problem and he acts.

Shortly afterwards a local war breaks out and Lot is among the people taken captive. Immediately Abraham assembles warriors, pursues the invaders, rescues Lot and with him all the other captives. And…he takes no interest in acquiring spoils of the victory.  Unlike Cain, Abram appears to understand that he is his brother’s keeper; that humans have a moral responsibility towards each other.  Despite the fact that Lot had chosen to go live in Sodom, Abram did not assume a “got-what-he-deserved” attitude but chose responsibility because it was the right thing to do, not because Lot ‘deserved’ it, necessarily.

Then God informs Abram that He is about to pass judgment on Sodom and Abram challenges the Almighty:

“Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”

When you stop and think about this, it’s rather remarkable. By what right does the creature challenge the Creator, God himself?

Read the passage carefully:

Then the Lord said, Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him” … Then the Lord said, “The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”

Those words, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” suggest that God wanted Abraham to respond. It was a test.

You see, Abraham’s behavior can only be rightly understood when compared to Noah’s. God also told Noah in advance that He was going to judge the world:

So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.”

But Noah did not protest. Noah accepted the verdict and set about building a huge boat. Abraham, on the other hand, challenged the impending judgment. Abraham pleaded for mercy. Why? Because he understood that humanity is a community and we are responsible for one another.  The people of Sodom were not his personal family, yet he interceded on their behalf because they were fellow human beings, created by the same God who had created him.

So, why did God ‘invite’ Abraham to challenge Him?

Abraham was to become the role model for and initiator of not just one nation, Israel, but many nations.  To him fell the responsibility to exemplify the kind of faith that his descendants would need, a faith at once strong but also humble, courageous but also dependent on Almighty God, individual but also communal.  He was to model a faith that goes beyond ‘me and mine’ to ‘all of us’.

Abraham never held a ‘political office’. However, he was a role model of genuine leadership. He took responsibility. He was decisive; he didn’t wait for others to act; he took action himself. Of Noah, the Torah says, “he walked with God.” But to Abraham, God himself said, “Walk before me,” (Gen. 17: 1), meaning: be a leader. Walk forthrightly. Take moral responsibility for yourself and your family, but not just for yourself. Take responsibility for humanity.

Self-centeredness that does not concern itself with the needs of others is irresponsible.

Communal or national consciousness that degrades the individual is arrogant and dangerous.

True responsibility begins with you but doesn’t end with you.  It cares about your fellowman as well. Considering the needs of others as important as our own is what we are called to do.

In Tune with Torah this week = Abraham stands throughout history as a towering example of kindness, selflessness and responsibility towards God and towards mankind.  As children of Abraham, whether by natural birth or by adoption, it behooves us to follow his example and walk the moral high ground in our society.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Shoftim August 29, 2014

Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:18 – 21:9

This week’s Torah reading has particular instruction for the king and by extension, instructions that apply to every leader.

“When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he must write for himself a copy of this Torah on a scroll before the levitical priests” (Deut. 17:18). He is further instructed that he must “read it all the days of his life” so that he will be God-fearing and never violate God’s commandments.

But not only that; “…so that he will “not begin to feel superior to his brethren” (Kaplan translation), and yet another translation says it this way: “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers”

The Torah commands the king (leader) to cultivate humility.

There are other commandments directed to the King in this week’s reading but this one trumps them all. If humility fills his heart, obeying the other instructions will be easy. The decline of the great king Solomon gives clear example of this principle. Solomon justified his breach of the remaining prohibitions by saying: the only reason that a king may not accumulate wives is that they will lead his heart astray, so I will marry many wives and not let my heart be led astray. And since the only reason not to have many horses is not to establish links with Egypt, I will have many horses but not do business with Egypt. In both cases he fell into the trap of which the Torah had warned. Solomon’s wives did lead his heart astray (1 Kings 11:3), and his horses were imported from Egypt (1 Kings 10:28-29). The arrogance of power is its downfall. Arrogance birthed the feeling in him that because he was ‘above’ the people, he was also ‘above’ the law.

For this very reason, the Torah insists on humility, not as something ‘nice’ but as a moral quality essential to leadership, political and spiritual. Maimonides wrote:

Just as the Torah grants him [the king] great honor and obliges everyone to respect him, so it commands him to be lowly and empty at heart, as it says: ‘My heart is empty within me’ (Ps. 109:22). Nor should he treat Israel with overbearing haughtiness, for it says, “so that his heart be not haughty over his brothers” (Deut. 17:20).

He should be gracious and merciful to the small and the great, involving himself in their good and welfare. He should protect the honor of even the humblest of men. When he speaks to the people as a community, he should speak gently, as it says, “Listen my brothers and my people….” (1 Chronicles 28:2), and similarly, “If today you will be a servant to these people…” (1 Kings 12:7).

He should always conduct himself with great humility. (Maimonides, Laws of Kings 2:6)

The model of both political and spiritual leadership in the Torah is Moses, described as “very humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

In fulfilling his mission, Moses was certainly not bashful, weak or lacking in confidence when he stood before Pharaoh and demanded, ‘Let my people go.’ He was not reluctant to rebuke the children of Israel when they needed correction.

Humility means giving honor where honor is due; caring about and respecting others. Humility is not about putting yourself down; it is about lifting other people up. God loves all people. His care extends to all regardless of rank or position. We are commanded to emulate Him for after all, are we not made in His image and likeness? Including the king?

There is a little publicized event that occurred during the Diamond Jubilee celebration of Queen Elizabeth of England.

It happened in St James Palace on 27 January 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Queen is known to be scrupulously punctual, but not on this occasion. When the time came for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said he had never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure time.

She was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. She gave each survivor – and it was a large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each person until they finished telling their personal story. Later one of them said, “Sixty years ago I did not know whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.” Giving her full attention to each of those survivors was a gift of healing into deeply lacerated lives. Sixty years earlier they had been treated, in Germany, Austria, Poland, in fact in most of Europe, as subhuman, yet now the Queen was treating them as if each were a visiting Head of State. That was humility on display. She did not consider herself any less the Queen but as the Queen, made time to give honor to those survivors, even ignoring her usual disciplined punctuality.

And where you find humility, there you find greatness. For true greatness is humility.

In Tune with Torah this week = humility is not just a requirement for leaders. Humility makes the least of us great in the eyes of God which after all, is where it really counts, isn’t it? How do we treat others? Have we formed the habit of treating others with respect, with kindness? Are we quick to judge by appearances or have we learned to give the benefit of the doubt, to allow that we may not know everything there is to know about another person’s decision or action? This is no contradiction to standing up for righteousness and justice. But even in taking a stand, as Moses did with Pharaoh, it is the attitude of the heart in doing so that divides humility from arrogance.

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary — Be’halot’ha June 5, 2014

NUMBERS/BAMIDABAR chapters 8 – 12

In the last chapter of this week’s reading, we are told what God considers the most important character trait of the leader of the children of Israel.

“Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man on the face of the earth.” 12:3

Why humility? And what is it anyway? With so many other wonderful traits like kindness, honesty, compassion, etc., why is Moses’ humility singled out for recognition?

One way to answer the question is to look at the opposite of humility – arrogance. The Talmud describes God’s hatred for the arrogant person – God says that there is no room for Himself and the arrogant person to ‘reside together’. The prophet Isaiah said it this way: “For thus says the high and exalted One Who lives forever, whose name is Holy, I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and humble of spirit.” 57:15

The arrogant person believes that he does not need God to succeed in life. He has an exaggerated perception of his own talents and considers himself a ‘self-made’ man. Therefore he thinks he doesn’t need God’s help. He may be intellectually intelligent but he is spiritually ignorant and doesn’t even realize it. He forgets that his very talents are gifts of God to be used for the good of others, not simply to exalt himself. Accordingly, God responds measure for measure and complies with this attitude; He provides the arrogant person with no Heavenly help and when his own talents sooner or later run out, he finds himself helpless.

The humble person has the very opposite attitude. He realizes that he has talents but that they are God-given. He recognizes that anything he strives to do can only be accomplished with Heavenly help. Rather than limiting him, this understanding is incredibly empowering. When a person recognizes that God provides him with whatever ability is necessary, it becomes obvious that his potential is unlimited because the source for his success is Himself unlimited!

This explains why Moses’ attribute of humility enabled him to reach such incredible heights. Realizing that anything he accomplished was only through the power of God at work through him, he transcended limitations and as we see in the Torah, several times attained supernatural achievements.

Humility is not complicated; it is the abiding recognition that God is the source of all our strength, that it is He who enables ordinary people to achieve great things. Real humility mandates that each of us be completely honest with ourselves; neither denying the gift and talents we have, nor thinking more highly of ourselves because of them. It is also requires that we just as honestly recognize our weaknesses and struggles and are not afraid or reluctant to acknowledge them.

One of the best descriptions I’ve ever heard of humility was this: Humility means I’m free of comparing myself to others.

Humility is the key to greatness. Once we tap into this unlimited source, then we can reach incredible heights.

In Tune with Torah this week = think about someone whom you admire for their virtue and their spiritual maturity. Can you see humility expressed through them? How? What is there about them that you can emulate?

Shabbat Shalom