True modesty: Feeling worthy of conversing with G-d

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer

By Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Shmini – Leviticus 9:1-11:47

In the classical commentaries to this week’s Scripture, Parsha Shimini, the greatest of all scholars, Rashi, writes “which of our great leaders – Moses or Aaron – embraced a higher form of humility?” The Torah in Numbers 12 maintains that “the man Moses was the most humble of all men upon the face of the earth.” In fact, the Yalkut Shimoni writes that Moses was like G-d from the waist up and like man from the waist down.  Because he had experienced Hashem, Moses was unlike any other human – even Aaron.

The Avner Nezer differentiates between two forms of humility:  Aaron, who is humble, with the feeling that he is insignificant, and Moses, who recognizes his own capabilities and achievements, but knows he is inconsequential in comparison to Hashem. Aaron believed himself to be unworthy because of his role in the sin of the Golden Calf.  As a result, he felt his sacrifices in the Mishkan were unworthy to achieve atonement for the Jewish people.

In this week’s Torah portion, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu bring forth “strange fire” before Hashem.  “And the fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them, thus they died- at the instance of the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:2) And what was this strange fire? The commentators say that it was their fervent passion to serve Hashem. They became religious zealots who could not tolerate the passiveness of Moses and Aaron. They could not understand how their elders could be so humble.  

The Kotzer Reb stated that every person should keep two statements in his pockets.  When the person is feeling low, he should pull out the statement that says “It is because of me that the world was created.” When the person is feeling full of himself, he should reach in his pocket and pull out the statement “I am but dust and ashes.”

It is very important to have true humility.  But at the same time, it is equally important to recognize our connection to the Divine.

I do believe that in addition to reciting our morning traditional prayers, we should also maintain a daily practice of talking with G-d.  Perhaps we want to begin our practice with a Hineini meditation, breathing in through our nostrils a deep and profound breath of the Divine Soul, recognizing that the Hebrew word for Breath and Soul are almost the same.  We breathe in and we breathe out a number of times, until we recognize that as we breathe in the Divine Presence, we are activating the Shechina within us, and the Masculine and the Feminine Aspects of G-d become one within us.

We are not unworthy creatures.  We are fully present in the Presence of the Lord G-d, who is now part of us, and we say with great joy and with great pride, “Hineini.  I am right here in the present, ready to hear every great word You offer me.  Because I am Your son or daughter and I thank You for this greatly.”  We practice meditations like this on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month when we have Kabbalistic Shabbat services at Congregation Bene Shalom.

One of the greatest obstacles I have seen people face is their sense of humility, couched in unworthiness. So many people feel unworthy before G-d.  “Why would G-d listen to me?  I’m not an observant Jew.  Why would G-d want to help me and my family? I don’t go to shul regularly. I don’t know how to pray.  I have committed sins in my life. I feel so unworthy to be here in front of this Holy Ark.”      

When the Hebrew text discusses the unworthiness of our patriarchs, this does not lead to a sense of worthiness among us.

Who is worthy? Who is unworthy? This is a very complicated question.  There are different ways of expressing humility. The Hasidic liturgist Tiferet Shlomo writes that the commentators praise Moses’ brother Aaron Ha’Kohen for his silent “response” to his sons’ death in this week’s Torah portion.  Hashem spoke directly to Aaron about the laws concerning the priests serving in the Tabernacle after having imbibed intoxicants. We know that silence is golden, and yet there is another response of humility that we learn from King David when he experienced very painful times. David sang, in Psalm 30:10, “So that my soul might make music to you and not be stilled, Hashem my G-d, forever I will thank you.”  

It is quite difficult and enormously humble to embrace silence rather than criticize a painful decree. But to be able to sing praise to our G-d showing our love and devotion, amidst pain and sorrow was David’s amazing expression of humility.  We all are humble in different ways. Aaron, David, Moses, Abraham—all different, all great and yet I do believe that we have the right to act as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev acted when he grabbed Hashem by the lapels and said, “Why do Your people suffer?”

Every day I am in front of the Holy Ark with holy members of my community. And even though Chazal considers it great humility to be silent in the face of great tragedy, when someone loses a son or daughter to suicide or cancer, I believe she has every right to box with G-d and say, “I love you G-d, but how could You let this happen?”  And I would still call her a most humble strongly believing child of G-d.

Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie, and president and Professor of Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.

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