Selected Sermon/Article
2001-05-28 Shavous (first day) by Rav Ze'ev Smason
True Humility

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 Torah?

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 same time.

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 be seated.

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