Humility: The Ideal Personality by Ezra Seplowitz

(2018/5778)

This week’s first Parashah, BeHar, is named after the location in which it was given-- Har Sinai. The Midrash (BeMidbar Rabbah 13:3) explains that Har Sinai was the smallest of all the mountains in the desert. The mountain was unappealing, and it lacked flowers and natural beauty. Yet HaKadosh Baruch Hu chose Har Sinai as the place to give the Torah over of all the other mountains. Why did Hashem choose Har Sinai, of all places? The Midrash answers that Har Sinai displayed the trait of humility, in ‘saying’ to G-d that it was lowly.

Benny Friedman explains that true humility needs a backbone. One who is humble is also strong, disciplined, determined and accomplished. Yet, what makes a person humble is their acknowledgement of Hashem’s existence and all that Hashem has granted them. True humility is what made Moshe so great. Many people have accomplished wonders equal to those performed by Moshe: Yehoshua also split the sea, Shaul HaMelech defeated also Amalek, and even Pharaoh's sorcerers were able to turn water to blood. What placed Moshe upon an unparalleled level was his exceptional humility. Moshe humbled himself to such an extreme level purely out of his fear of Hashem. This quality is the reason we refer to Moshe as “Moshe Rabbeinu”— he is not just our teacher, but also our role model. Each and every Jew should strive to achieve the level of humility that Moshe Rabbeinu reached, because only through humility can one achieve ultimate greatness.

The Rambam explains in Hilchot Dei’ot (2:4) that humility is one of the few character traits for which one must not find the ‘golden mean’, but rather practice it in the ultimate extreme. Interestingly, the Rambam lists anger as a trait to be avoided in the extreme; anger was character trait that led to Moshe Rabbeinu’s fatal mistake at Mei Merivah, and his punishment. In this way, we can learn from both Moshe’s successes and failures.

The Midrash further explains that when Bnei Yisrael received the Torah, Har Sinai became a lustrous mountain, full of natural beauty and transcendent. Har Sinai— just like Moshe— transformed from a “humble” mountain into a monumental landmark.

This is essentially what the Omer is all about. Sefirat Ha’Omer is a serious time where we take a step back and reflect on our flaws. Moshe Rabbeinu was prohibited from entering Eretz Yisrael because he let his anger get the better of him. It was neither a foreign nation nor another Jew that led to Moshe’s punishment; it was himself. So too, it has been the Jewish people’s own flaws that have led to the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and to its continued state of distress. It was Sinat Chinam and other character flaws that corrupted the humility of the Jewish people, leading to the Galut. During the Omer we refrain from certain pleasures in order to prepare for the acceptance of the Torah. In doing so, we humble ourselves just like Har Sinai, and prevent our bad character traits from overcoming us, so that we can rededicate ourselves to the Torah on Shavuot.

For this reason, we also have a tradition to learn Pirkei Avot during Sefirah. Rav Ovadiah MiBartenura explains the first words of Pirkei Avot (1:1), “Moshe Kibel Torah Mi’Sinai”, “Moshe accepted the Torah from Sinai,” as a statement that Jewish morals were not invented by later generations; the ethical teachings and maxims in Pirkei Avot were passed down from Moshe Rabbeinu himself. This teaches us that one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism, mandated by Hashem, is to achieve the ideal personality.

It is even more fitting that Parashat Bechukotai begins with “Im BeChukotai Teilechu, V’Et Mitzvotai Tishmoru, Ve’Asitem Otam”, “If you walk in my laws, and keep my commandments, and perform them.” The seemingly redundant phrasing of the Pasuk teaches us that we are not only commanded to perform the Mitzvot, but must also “walk” in their path and “guard” them. One must truly live in the ways of the Torah, and always watch themselves so as not to slip up. One must maintain the ultimate level of humility to truly achieve the words “Teilechu” and “Tishmoru.”

If we achieve this goal, not only will Hashem give us rain in its proper time and fruit-bearing trees, but Hashem will also grant us the third and final Beit HaMikdash, may it come speedily in our days.

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