Humility as a prerequisite for receiving the Torah (Shavuot)

Shalom, Chag Sameach, and thank you so much for your generous welcome!

Today, as we celebrate Shavuot, I would like to discuss a value that is so inextricably linked to the festival of Shavuot that – at least according to the Rabbis of the Midrash – it is the reason why Mount Sinai was chosen as the place where the Torah was to be given. At the same time, this value is one that is rarely pondered and even more rarely discussed between ourselves and within our communities. And for those of you still guessing, I am – of course – talking about the value of humility.

We have all probably heard the joke about the shul where, in the middle of the Musaf prayers on Yom Kippur, the Rabbi called out ‘Oh God! Before you, I am nothing’, after which, the Chazan was so moved by this gesture that he too cried out ‘Oh God! Before you, I am nothing’. Then, inspired by the Rabbi and the Chazan, a congregant cried out in prayer, ‘Oh God! I am nothing’, to which the Rabbi turned to the Chazan and remarked ‘Look who thinks he’s nothing!’

Like all good humour, this joke expresses how humility is often bandied around as an honorific. However, to be clear, this type of humility is not what I am talking about.

Instead, I’d like to discuss authentic humility and explain how we can nurture it within ourselves. And to do so, I’d like to tell you a story containing a further story.

As some of you may know, I teach some fabulous young women in two post-high school seminaries, and just over a year ago, I had a profound conversation with one of my students called Lexie who had just spent the past year and a half studying in Sem.

Lexie is a motivated, inspired and attentive student, and she’d really committed herself to her Torah studies. In fact, while most students leave seminary after a year of study, Lexie had decided to stay on for a few more months.

Anyway, towards the end of her time in Sem Lexie asked to have a chat with me, and since the school is based within the Givat Washington campus, we decided to walk and talk.

It was towards the end of January and around 6pm when it was beginning to get dark and the streetlamps had already turned on.

As we started to walk, Lexie turned to me and said that notwithstanding how much Torah she’d learnt, and how much she’d accomplished, and how transformational the past year and a half had been, she felt that she knew nothing. As she said, “how can it be that I’ve been here for so long, and I feel I know so little?!”.

As she asked this question I smiled, and I then responded “Lexie – I’m so so proud of you! Let’s walk a little further as I want to show you something”.

We continued to walk and we came near a streetlamp, and I asked Lexie to look down. “What can you see?” I asked her. “My shadow”, she responded. “And is your shadow big or small?”, “Big” she answered.

We then continued further and were standing almost directly below the streetlamp, and I then asked Lexie again, “What can you see?”. “I can still see my shadow”, she replied. “But is your shadow big or small?” I asked, to which she answered “small”.

I then turned to Lexie and said, “Let me tell you a story about Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz, otherwise known as the Hazon Ish.

The Hazon Ish lived in Bnei Brak in the 1950’s, and when the municipality were developing the city, they placed a streetlamp outside his apartment building.

Though this may sound mundane now, at the time this was a big event in Bnei Brak, and so his students asked him what he thought of this new technology. To this, the Hazon Ish offered a truly profound reply: “It is very interesting – when you are far away from the streetlamp, your shadow is large, but when you are near the streetlamp, your shadow is small. And the same thing goes for Torah. Those who know less Torah often think how great they are; but those who study Torah intensively come to realise how small they really are”.

Then, I turned to Lexie and said, “the reason I’m so proud of you is because you’ve learnt so much Torah that you’ve come to realise how little you know!”. Ultimately, her Torah study had instilled within her a deep awe of God, and a profound sense of humility.

Now there may be some of you that may be thinking that perhaps Lexie’s remarks, and my response, are incorrect. Surely we should be proud of what our achievements are? Surely we should be proud of what we know?!

In response to this, I would like to review a powerful Midrash concerning Matan Torah – and for those who wish to review this Midrash, it can be found in Shemot Rabba on Parshat Ki Tissa.

When we think of Moshe Rabbeinu, who as we know is described as the most humble of people, we think of his genius to learn, receive and transmit Torah. However, in this Midrash we encounter a quite different portrait of our great leader:

אמר ר’ אבהו כל מ’ יום שעשה משה למעלה היה למד תורה ושוכח, א”ל רבון העולם יש לי מ’ יום ואיני יודע דבר, מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא? נתן לו את התורה מתנה

Said Rav Avahu: Throughout the 40 days that Moshe was atop the mountain with God, he studied Torah and forgot it. He then proclaimed: “Master of the world, I’ve got just 40 days ואיני יודע דבר – and I don’t know anything!” What did the Holy One, Blessed Be He, do? At the end of the 40 days the Holy One, Blessed Be He, gave him the Torah as a gift.

Now this Midrash is complex in many ways, but I’m interested in the relationship between Moshe’s proclamation and Hashem’s response, because what we see here is that Hashem gifted the Torah to Moshe in response to Moshe’s proclamation of ואיני יודע דבר – I don’t know anything!

Of course Moshe studied Torah throughout those forty days on Mount Sinai, yet it seems – at least according to this Midrash – that notwithstanding Moshe’s abilities, he felt unable to retain the Torah that God was teaching him.

Now for some people, this feeling would have been a source of frustration, or anger. But for Moshe, this feeling provided a unique opportunity to express his limitations and reveal how he looked at himself as an  איני יודע דבר- as someone who knows nothing. And I believe that it was at this moment – where Moshe looked down at his very small shadow – which was when God was most pleased with him, which is why today, as we celebrate the giving of the Torah, I believe that we need to acknowledge the value of humility as a prerequisite for receiving the Torah.

However, there is a powerful postscript to this story that occurred 40 years later, on the final day of Moshe’s life.

We are taught that Moshe was blessed with good health until his last day, but that on the last day of his life Hashem revoked the gift of Torah that He had given Moshe, meaning that Moshe – who had taught Torah to the Jewish people for the past 40 years – was brought back to a state when he felt איני יודע דבר – that he knew nothing.

This transition occurs at the start of Parshat Vayelech at the end of Sefer Devarim, and this led our Rabbis to explain the meaning of the word ‘vayelech’ – and he went.

Ask our Sages, ‘so where did Moshe – our great Torah master – go on the last day of his life?’

And they answer by explaining that since Moshe no longer had the gift of Torah, he went to learn Torah from his disciple Yehoshua – Joshua.

When I think of this image, of Moshe Rabbeinu aged 120 years old, on his final day on this earth, using his last burst of strength to go and study Torah anew as if he was a child, I am so deeply moved.

For most people, such an act would have been incredibly demeaning. But not for Moshe. Instead, Moshe would have revelled in that moment because he’d have been studying Torah without the burden of honour, because – ultimately – true greatness is found amongst the truly humble.

So today, as we celebrate Matan Torah, let us remember how Mount Sinai was chosen because it was the lowliest of mountains. Let us remember the message of the Hazon Ish that the closer you are to the light of Torah, the smaller your shadow. Let us think of the proclamation of Moshe Rabbeinu of איני יודע דבר, and finally, how on his final day on earth, Moshe was able to accept the Torah anew through humbling himself and sitting as a student while being taught by his student.

Chag Sameach!


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