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Jewish World Review
Some big thoughts about not acting so big
Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
The finest of all traits
The man, Moses, was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.
Of all the character traits of Moses, the Torah (Bible) cites only one: His humility. Of
all the undesirable character traits a person may have, there is only one
that repels the presence of G-d: Vanity (Arachin 15b). Here are several
comments on the importance of humility.
- Rebbe Yehoshua of Ostrova said that a vain person is even worse than a liar. ''A liar
does not believe his own lies, whereas a vain person is convinced of his superiority.''
- Rebbe Refael of Bershed said, ''Some people pursue acclaim and thrive on being
honored. Little do they realize that in order to receive honor, you must actually
lower yourself. One can only pour into a container when it is held lower.''
- Rebbe Pinchas of Koritz said, ''Every sin requires some action or object. Vanity
requires nothing. A person may be lying under blankets and think, 'How great I am.'''
- Rebbe Mendel of Kotzk said, ''A person who seeks recognition is much like a goat
that wears a bell around its neck to announce its whereabouts.''
- Chovos HaLevovos says, ''A person who is free of all sin is at risk of the greatest
character defect: to consider himself a tzaddik [saint].''
- A vain person came to see Rebbe Avraham the Malach (angel). He found him standing
by the window, looking out. ''See that hill?'' he said. ''It is only a pile of earth,
yet it stands high as if it were superior to others.''
In "Angels Don't Leave Footprints", I cited a number of ethicists who say that
humility does not mean denying one's talents and abilities. Although Moses was
the humblest of all people on earth, he knew that he had achieved a level of
prophesy never attained by anyone else.
When Miriam and Aaron spoke critically of Moses, G-d reprimanded them: ''In
my entire house, he (Moses) is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him,
in a clear vision and not in riddles, at the image of G-d does he gaze. Why did you
not fear to speak against My servant Moses?'' (Numbers 12:7-8) These verses, just
like the entire Torah, were written by Moses. He knew his uniqueness, but it not
detract from his humility.
Truly humble people shun acclaim. Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch
(Tzemach Tzedek) took his young son, Shmuel, with him on a journey.
Shmuel wrote home about the throngs of people that had greeted his father
and the great honor he had received. When the Tzemach Tzedek found the
letter, he said to Shmuel, ''My blood was spilling like water, and this gave
The Talmud says that the last eight verses in the Torah, which relate Moses'
death, were written by Moses at G-d's dictation, and Moses cried as he wrote them
(Bava Basra 15a). A chassidic master suggested that Moses was not crying because
he was writing about his own death, but because G-d dictated, ''Never again has
there arisen in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom G-d had known face to face''
(Deuteronomy 34:10). It gave Moses great pain to write this adulation about himself.
It is quite simple to efface oneself before a great scholar. The greatness of Moses'
humility was that he effaced himself before the lowliest person: ''Moses was
exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.''
As pointed out, humility is not a denial of one's capacity. Moses knew that he
had the responsibility of leadership, and when implementation of authority was
called for, he did not hesitate to assert himself. That is true humility.
Our ethical works emphasize the importance of humility, and provide instruction
on how one can know one's personality strengths, yet avoid the objectionable trait
of vanity. Studying the works of mussar (ethics) is of the utmost importance to enable one
to avoid vanity while maintainng a healthy self-esteem.
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Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D. is a psychiatrist and ordained rabbi. He is the founder of the Gateway Rehabilitation Center in Pittsburgh, a leading center for addiction treatment. An Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, he is a prolific author, with some 30 books to his credit, including, "Twerski on Chumash" (Bible), from which this was excerpted (Sales of this book help fund JWR).
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