Selected Sermon/Article
2000-10-21 Shmini Atzeres by Rav Ze'ev Smason
The Yom Tov of Humility
When you walked into shul this morning and picked up your Shabbos bulletins, you may have noticed the conspicuous absence of the phrase 'Go Cards.' And to those few of you who still might be in denial, I'm saddened to tell you that the St. Louis Cardinals are not playing in the World Series that begins today, but rather -- it's a 'Subway Series' between the New York Yankees, and the New York Mets.

While we at NHBZ are focused on Shmini Atzeres and Simchas Torah, it seems that many New Yorkers are abuzz with the excitement of the first all-NY World Series since 1956, and amongst the serious topics being discussed in the New York papers is: what is the difference between a Mets fan, and a Yankees fan? The Thursday edition of the NY Times interviewed one Allen Sherman, a 69 year old retiree from the Bronx, who stated that "Yankee fans are much more highly educated. We have to be. It's harder to spell Yankees than Mets. And we can curse in so many different languages. We earn more, so when we throw a beer can it's those high-priced beer cans."

The best quote I saw concerning the 'Subway Series', and one that I'd like to use in introducing out topic today, came from none other than the Mayor of New York City, himself -- Rudolph Guiliani, an avid Yankees fan. When asked if he thought people around the country would be fascinated with a "Subway Series," Guiliani said, "who cares? We are the rest of the country."

I'm not sure whether Mayor Guiliani's remarks were offered tongue-in-cheek; however, one of the themes of the Yom Tov davening is the importance of acting with humility before God, and how an arrogant inflated ego can actually preclude developing trust in God. "Adon HaMoshiah, beel'techa ain l'hoshia" -- "You are the Master of Salvation, and but for You, there is no salvation" -- our tefillos (prayers) on Sukkos emphasize that if we humble ourselves, and realize that our wisdom is so limited and our resources so meager, then we can truly rejoice in this holiday that's referred to as 'Zman Simchasaynu' -- 'Our time of Joy' -- And have a close relationship with the Almighty.

A person who walks with true humility, is an awe-inspiring sight to see. The Talmud (Nedarim 66b) relates the story of a man who lived in Babylon who traveled to Israel, and took a wife. It seems, however, that their differences in language threatened the prospects of a happy home. One morning, the man asked his wife to prepare him two 'talfi' for breakfast. 'Talfi' in Aramaic means 'animal legs' -- the man had a taste for a couple of leftover polkes from Shabbos for breakfast. His wife, however, missed the mark by a mile, when she made him a delicious breakfast of -- two beans -- since the word 'talfi' in Hebrew means 'beans.' Infuriated, this short-tempered husband ordered his wife to take two candles and break them over the 'bava' -- the Aramaic word for 'door,' or 'gate.' Once again misunderstanding her husband, however, the confused woman approached one of the leading rabbis of the generation who's named happened to be 'Bava ben Buta.' Fearing the wrath of her husband, she complied by breaking the candles over 'the Bava' -- over the head of Bava ben Buta!

The Talmud relates that the response of the great sage was to ask the woman a perfectly reasonable question: "Why did you do that?" She responded by saying "I'm doing what my husband told me to do!" The humble response of Bava ben Buta was, "You've fulfilled the will of your husband. May the Almighty bless you with sons who grow to be great Torah scholars."

Defining humility may be a bit elusive, but first lets clarify what humility is not. Humility does not mean making yourself into a shmatta (rag), and allowing people to walk over you right and left. Such a person -- and we all know such people -- are individuals suffering from a lack of self-esteem, and confuse humility with passivity. To be humble, from the Torah perspective, can be summed up in the following succinct sentence: The person who is truly humble, is the one who recognizes that "everything I have is a gift."

The humble person takes pleasure in their talents and skills, but not 'pride.' The person who walks with humility appreciates the material blessings that they've been given by God, but doesn't see themselves as fully deserving or worthy of them. A person who is truly humble gets along wonderfully with others, because their ego doesn't prevent them from developing close friendships and relationships.

It's of interest to note that Torah is likened to water. Why the comparison? Just as water always flows to the lowest point possible, so too, Torah gravitates most to the one least arrogant. Sukkos and Shmini Atzeres is a time to request that the Almighty bless us with abundant rain, in that it's the time that the world is judged concerning water. We can make ourselves vessels for 'spiritual water' -- for Torah -- in the coming year, by seeking to integrate the character trait of humility.

I'd like to close with a story that highlights the topic we've been discussing today. Rabbi Jacob Cohen of Los Angeles told of an incident that occurred when he was in the midst of pursuing a doctorate at Fordham University - a Jesuit college -- in New York City. Required by the Sociology department to demonstrate mastery in two foreign languages, Rabbi Cohen contacted the department office to see if he could use 'Hebrew' as one his foreign languages. The receptionist responded by saying that no one at the Fordham Dept. of Sociology had ever attempted to use Hebrew to meet their foreign language requirement, and to have that question answered, Rabbi Cohen would have to speak to the department head -- an individual named 'Father Fitzmeyer.'

Rabbi Cohen called Father Fitzmeyer, and asked the question. The jovial Father Fitzmeyer said that his request was a bit unusual, but that the department would allow Hebrew to be used to meet his language requirement. Father Fitzmeyer asked Rabbi Cohen when he'd like to take the exam -- would he need 6 months, 9 months, or a year to prepare? Rabbi Cohen said, "Oh no, I won't need anywhere near that time. In fact, I was hoping to take the exam this coming Monday, if it could be arranged." "Fine," Father Fitzmeyer responded, "I'll see you in my office Monday morning at 9:00 am.

Nine o'clock the following Monday morning arrived, and Rabbi Cohen found himself face to face with Father Fitzmeyer, dressed in full Dominican Monk garb. Rabbi Cohen said that he was quivering with delight when he found out that Father Fitzmeyer himself would be administering the Hebrew exam, and that per Rabbi Cohen's request, the exam would be oral. "How much can a 'Father Fitzmeyer' know about Hebrew, Rabbi Cohen joyfully told himself?

Rabbi Cohen's self-assurance quickly faded, however, when Father Fitzmeyer walked to his book shelf, took down a Tenach in Hebrew, and began grilling Rabbi Cohen on translations from the book of Job -- a book of Tenach that has teeth-breaking Hebrew that even the most learned of rabbis find difficult. After an hour and a half of a grueling oral exam, Father Fitzmeyer closed the Tenach, looked at a perspiring, nervous Jack Cohen, and said, "Cohen -- your Hebrew isn't bad, but your English stinks! I've mastered 5 different translations of the Book of Job, and you can barely come up with 'pshat' -- a barebones, basic translation!'

At this point, Rabbi Cohen was incredulous, and asked Father Fitzmeyer how he knew Hebrew so well. Father Fitzmeyer said, "Well, the truth is, Hebrew isn't my best language. You see, Rabbi Cohen, my real area of expertise is Aramaic, and I was one of the translators of the Dead Sea Scrolls."

As a postscript to this story, Rabbi Cohen said that he thanked Father Fitzmeyer for the test, and for the lesson in humility. With a twinkle in his eye, Father Fitzmeyer said, "Well, Cohen, you did look a bit cocky."

One who is humble is pleasant, and gives pleasure to his fellow man. The humble person isn't easily aroused to anger, and does things quietly and calmly. One who walks humbly with God, isn't moved to envy by the vanities of the world. Sukkos and Shmini Atzeres are referred to as 'Zman Simchasaynoo' -- 'Our time of happiness'. Happy is the one who improves their character traits, and develops a closer, more meaningful relationship with God.

Good Shabbos, and Good Yom Tov