Many stories are told of the great 19th century yeshiva in Europe called
Novardok, where the students were known for their great humility. To reach
such levels, they would sit for 30 minutes each morning in the study hall,
rocking back and forth chanting "I am nothing, I am nothing, I am nothing."
One morning, a new student arrived at the yeshiva, and upon entering the
study hall, was surprised to find hundreds of students muttering "I am
nothing." He checked the sign outside the door to make sure he had the right
place, and then figured he might as well go in and join them. He found an
empty seat, sat down, and began rocking forth chanting, "I am nothing, I am
nothing, I am nothing." Suddenly, the student seated next to him turned and
said, "What chutzpah! I was here an entire year before I was nothing!"
The Midrash says that when HaShem was preparing to give the Torah, all
the mountains stepped forward and declared why they thought the Torah should
be given on them. "I'm the highest mountain," said one. "No," said another,
"I am the steepest mountain and therefore the Torah should be given on me."
One by one they stated their claims. But in the end, HaShem chose Har
Sinai -- not because it was the tallest or grandest, but because, says the
Midrash, it was the most humble.
What is this notion of 'humility,' and what does it have to do with
Before WW 2, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, the Rav of Vilna, was the
acclaimed Torah giant of his generation. Reb Chaim Ozer had the ability to
think three or four unrelated thoughts simultaneously without losing track or
confusing any of them, and incredibly, he could write with both hands at the
A nephew said that he once saw his uncle Rabbi Chaim Ozer writing a
halachic responsa with one hand, writing down tzedaka accounts with the other
-- while at the same time, discussing Torah with someone in the room!
Despite his phenomenal intellectual abilities and mastery of the Torah,
Rabbi Chaim Ozer was the epitome of the trait of humility.
It once happened that Rabbi Chaim Ozer was observed reading a letter
addressed to him that began with a seemingly endless stream of accolades. "To
Rabbi Chaim Ozer, the revered, the saintly, the pious, the genius, the
Talmudic master, etc., etc." Suddenly, Rabbi Chaim Ozer began laughing
almost uncontrollably. When asked what it was he found so humorous in the
letter, he responded, " In the days of the Russian Revolution inflation was
so rampant that it took a million rubles to purchase a loaf of bread. From
the things that this person wrote about me in this letter, it seems that the
spiritual world is experiencing the same kind of gross inflation!"
If someone were to ask you to give a character description of someone who
is truly humble, what would you say? What is it about people that leads us
to describe them as having humility? Let me suggest two ideas.
A person with appropriate humility will be liked and respected by
others. This won't be his main focus, but an automatic byproduct of this
virtue. People gravitate towards people who exude self-effacing humor, and
can poke fun at themselves. A prominent politician once began his speech by
saying "I understand that you've been searching for a speaker who can dazzle
you with his charm, wit and personality. I'm pleased to be filling in while
the search continues."
The second barometer of humility is that the humble person respects
others. They don't feel a need to appear stronger, wiser, wealthier or
superior to others in any way. It's the arrogant person who can't allow any
wrong to go unanswered, but the truly humble allow insults and wrongs to just
slide off their back. One of the most popular presidents in the 20th century
was John F. Kennedy, who was often taunted about his father's wealth.
Kennedy endeared himself to America with such comments as 'You don't know how
stingy my father is. He told me not to buy a single vote more than
necessary. He's not going to pay for a landslide."
Torah is compared to water because just as water flows to the lowest
point possible, so too Torah gravitates to the person who humbles themselves.
The Torah was given in a desert because a desert is empty. What this means
is that to aquire Torah -- our task today on Shevous -- we must first be
willing to open up space inside, by removing the ego.
If we pay attention, things occur to us on a regular basis to help keep
our egos in check. Earlier this year, my son's kindergarten teacher at
Epstein Hebrew Academy was looking for parents to speak to the class as they
went through the Alphabet. One parent who was a physician spoke to the class
about being a doctor when they got to the letter 'D.' Guess what letter was
my turn? You guessed it -- the letter 'R,' for rabbi.
Well, I'll tell you -- I thought about and prepared for that 15 minute
presentation for days. How can you explain to a bunch of kindergartners what
being a rabbi is about? I brought several books to the class to show the
children what I teach from, told them that I visited the sick, helped people
to learn Torah, and led services in the synagogue. I thought I gave a
marvelously inspired talk that communicated to the kids on their level just
what it is that a rabbi does. But when the teacher asked for questions, not
one child raised their hand. I was worried, because a sign of a successful
presentation is when the audience has questions or comments. Suddenly, the
hand of one young boy shot up -- and I was so relieved. A question! I said,
'Yes, what's your question?' At that point, the 5 year old looked at the
teacher and said, 'Can I go to the bathroom now?'
On this Yom Tov of Shevous, while we relive the Sinai experience, the
message for us is to know our place, and to make some space.
I feel it's important to take note that first day Yom Tov this year
coincides with Memorial Day. I believe that the attribute of humility
obligates us to appreciate the price that was paid for our own lives by those
who served in this nation's armed forces. We're blessed and privileged to
have a number of members of our own congregation who served this country with
courage, dedication and bravery. I'd like to ask at this time all the
veterans to please rise, so we can humbly acknowledge all you've done for us.
We're in your debt, gentlemen, and all we can do is be thankful. It was
through your effort and sacrifice, and the effort and sacrifice of many not
with us here today, who have allowed us to live in freedom and this country,
and freely keep the Torah. We thank the Almighty for the opportunity to live
freely as Jews, and we thank each of you for all you've done for us. You may
May we all merit to a true 'Kabbalas HaTorah' -- a receiving of the Torah --
and may HaShem bless our effort to serve Him with humility, to improve our
character, and to become true receptacles for the Torah.
Good Yom Tov