Vayikra – Using the Trait of Lowliness for Proper Manners

 There is an old saying that the great rabbis in the Slobodka Yeshiva were oft to say, “Anava (humility): yes, shiflus (lowliness): no.” The Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, Rav Alter Chanoch Henach Leibowitz zt”l, explained the intent behind this saying that it’s forbidden for a person to feel that he is lacking in self-worth since this feeling will lead to depression and giving up hope. 
However, we find an exception to this rule, which undoubtedly the great rabbis of this great mussar yeshiva would certainly agree to, in the introduction by Rabbeinu Bachye in this week’s Torah portion of Vayikra which leads straight into the opening pasuk, “He called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting saying” (Vayikra 1:1). The introduction is a very important outlook into the attribute of humility, but more importantly discusses fundamentals into the very concepts of character development in general.

In summary Rabbeinu Bachye bases the introduction on the pasuk in Mishley (22:4), “The heal of humility is fear of Hashem, wealth, honor and life.” He explains on a simple level, this pasuk is teaching us that what one can reach in this world through humility is four things: fear, wealth, honor, and life. This is because the attribute of humility is a physical attribute amongst people. This is by acting amongst people with bashfulness, patience, respecting people, talking positively about them, and listening to insults and staying quiet. And through this physical attribute one will elevate himself to the intellectual attribute of fear [of G-D] and will also lead to wealth because a humble person is happy with his lot for he doesn’t feel he needs much, doesn’t desire anything extra, and is happy with his lot, which is why he is rich. He is also respected, for when a person is happy with what he has, he doesn’t give into his desires and has a lowly spirit that is honorable. It also leads to life because one who desires extra is always worried when he doesn’t get his way and his life is a life of pain and worry which shortens a person’s life. He is suffering over a world which isn’t his, but if he is happy with his lot, not worried about what he did not acquire, and escapes from worry, then he lives a blissful life.

On a midrashic level, Rabbeinu Bachye explains that just as wisdom makes a crown for the head so too humility makes a heel for the sole. It is known that for every attribute there are two extremes as well as a middle ground. Humility is the middle ground with haughtiness on one extreme and lowliness on the opposite extreme. The middle ground is usually the best median to reach for all attributes and going to the extreme is bad and bitter. However, when it comes to the attribute of humility people are encouraged to go to the extreme of lowliness and not choose to stay in the median of humility, lest one gets too close to crossing the boundaries into haughtiness, which is a despicable attribute that damages a person, which disturbs a person physically and spiritually from life in this world and eternity. This is why Chaza”l say one should be very, very lowly in spirit. Double “very” indicating that it is worthwhile to go away from the median and go to the extreme of lowliness because the attribute of humility is glorified, exulted and apparent to everyone around. This is why King David describes himself as a broken and lowly heart, even though he was a great king, prophet, and the head of the 70 judges of the Sanhedrin.

Then Rabbeinu Bachye goes on to write, “We also find by Moshe Rabbeinu of blessed memory, who was the head of all the prophets and the pasuk didn’t praise him with any other lofty attribute besides the attribute of humility, as the Torah says, ‘And the man Moshe was very humble’ (Bamidbar 12:3). It mentions ‘very’ to emphasize that Moshe Rabbeinu did not want to only stay in the median, which is referred to as humility, but he directed himself from the middle to the side of lowliness, and that is why ‘very’ was mentioned. Part of his humility and lowliness was that he refused to enter the Tent of Meeting while the Tent was hidden and covered by the Cloud of Glory, as it says, ‘And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Honor of Hashem filled the Mishkan’ (Shemos 40:35). And even though Hashem already told Moshe ‘and I testify about you from there and I spoke to you from on the kapores, (curtain), between the two keruvim (cherubs)‘ (Shemos 25:22), still in all Moshe didn’t feel comfortable coming into the Tent of Meeting to prophesize inside there, nor to daven there, or to bring a sacrifice, until Hashem gave him permission and called him in [as the opening pasuk in this week’s portion indicates.]” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
What does lowliness have to do with asking permission to come into the Tent of Meeting? It is basic proper manners (derech eretz) to knock before entering and waiting to be let in, especially by a king–and all the more so by The King Of All Kings?! Furthermore, my Rosh Yeshiva zt”l, Rav Henoch Leibowitz (Chiddushei HaLev Sefer Bamidbar, parshas Bihaaloscha 12:3), defined a humble person as one who recognizes all his unique qualities and strengths, and therefore he understands his purpose in life but nevertheless he feels people are better than him. Not that he lies to himself and does not recognize the level he is on because that is a lack of truth, and Hashem’s signature is truth, and He would not want us to lie to ourselves. Rather, for example, Moshe Rabbeinu knew he was the most humble and perfected person in the world, and he understood that his purpose in life was to be the leader of the generation to lead the Jews, but still he felt that each Jew was better than him for their own unique traits that he personally didn’t have. If that’s the case and he knew that Hashem gave him an open door to speak to Him whenever he wished, and it wasn’t for nothing, praying, sending offerings, and receiving prophecy to deliver to the people are very lofty and important matters, so why did he feel he had to lower himself to first wait to be called to enter? Furthermore, if humility is better and lowliness could be dangerously unhealthy, then why take the risk to do something which he seemingly does not have to do? Even if you say it’s dangerous to be in the middle in terms of humility because it’s too close to haughtiness, why can’t the most humble and perfect person in the world be able to keep himself away from haughtiness while staying on a healthy median?

We must say that, of course proper manners trump the open invitation of walking in and addressing Hashem that Moshe had received. Derech eretz kadma liTorah, proper manners precede the Torah (what is technically acceptable to do) therefore, it was right for Moshe Rabbeinu to wait until he was called. However, being the humble person he was, Moshe knew himself very well and knew he was allowed to walk in whenever he wanted or needed and knew he would only do it in an appropriate manner. Therefore, he felt that he might “barge in” at times instead of first “knocking” so, as a form of chinuch hamussar, applying his self-discipline, he lowered himself more than his median state to ensure that he always acted properly with the proper respect and manners.

It is true in general that shiflus, lowliness, can be a damaging attribute leading to depression and a lack of self-worth however, when being used to strengthen another attribute, for example, acting with proper manners, then it’s not only positive but a healthy means to ensure you are constantly acting appropriately.

Good Shabbos
Rabbi Dovid Shmuel Milder