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Mesillat Yesharim
( Path of the Just )

CHAPTER XXII

CONCERNING THE TRAIT OF HUMILITY

WE HAVE ALREADY discussed the shamefulness of pride and have been made aware, by inference, of the praiseworthiness of Humility. We shall now discuss Humility directly, and the nature of pride will become clear of itself.

The essence of Humility is in a person's not attaching importance to himself for any reason whatsoever. This trait is the very opposite of pride and its results are the very opposite of the results of pride. Analysis will reveal that Humility is dependent upon thought and deed. Before a man conducts himself in the way of the Humble, he must first be Humble in thought. One who attempts to be Humble in deeds without first having cultivated an attitude of Humility belongs to that class of wicked, deceitful, "humble" men which we mentioned previously, that class of hypocrites, than which there is nothing more evil in the world.

We shall now explain these divisions.

Humility in thought consists in a person's reflecting upon and recognizing as a truth the fact that he does not deserve praise and honor (let alone elevation above his fellow men), both because of his natural limitations and because of his accumulated defects. As far as natural limitations are concerned, it is obvious that it is impossible for any man, regardless of the level of perfection he has reached, to be without many faults, whether because of his own nature, because of his family and relatives, because of certain experiences he has had, or because of his deeds. ("For a man is not righteous in the land who will do good..." [Ecclesiastes 7:20] ) All of these are defects in a person which allow no room at all for the feeling of self-importance; for though he may possess many virtues, these faults suffice to overshadow them.

The factor that is responsible more than any other for a person's coming to feel self-important and proud is wisdom. This is so because wisdom is a superior quality of the person himself, a function of his most honored faculty, intelligence. But there is no sage who will not err and will not need to learn from the words of his friends and, very often, even from those of his disciples. How, then, can he pride himself in his wisdom? In truth, one who is possessed of an honest intelligence, even if he has managed to become a toweringly great sage, will see, when he looks into the matter, that there is no room at all for pride and self-importance. For a man of intelligence, one who knows more than others, acts only according to the dictates of his nature, as it is natural for a bird to fly, and as it is dictated for an ox to pull with his strength. One is wise only because his nature has led him to be so. And one who is not so wise now, were he in possession of the sage's natural intelligence, would become just as wise as he. There is no place, then, for self-importance and pride in respect to wisdom. Rather, if one possesses much wisdom, he is duty-bound to impart it to those in need of it. As stated by R. Yochanan ben Zakkai (Avoth 2.9), "If you have learned much Torah, do not take credit for it, for you were created to do so." One who is wealthy may rejoice in his lot, but at the same time he must help those in need. If one is strong, he must assist the weak and rescue the oppressed. The situation is analogous to that of a household where there are different servants assigned to different tasks, and where each servant must fulfill his appointed task if the affairs and requirements of the household are all to be attended to. In truth there is no place for pride here.

This is the type of analysis and reflection that should be engaged in by every man of honest, unperverted intelligence. And when this idea becomes clear to him, he will be reckoned the truly Humble man, Humble in his heart and in his very being. As David said to Michael (II Samuel 6:22), "And I was lowly in my eyes." And as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Sotah 56), "How great are the Humble in spirit! In the time of the Temple if one sacrificed a burnt-offering, he was accredited with a burnt-offering; if he sacrificed a meal-offering, he was accredited with a meal-offering. But if one possesses a Humble spirit it is considered by Scripture as if he had offered all of the sacrifices, as it is said (Psalms 51:19), "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit.' " This is the praise of the lowly in spirit, the Humble in heart and in thought. Elsewhere it is said (Chullin 89a), " "Not because you are more numerous than the other nations' (Deuteronomy 7:7) - the Holy One Blessed be He said to Israel, "My sons, I desire you because even when I impart greatness to you, you demean yourselves before Me. I gave greatness to Abraham and he said (Genesis 18:27), "And I am dust and ashes.' I gave greatness to Moses and Aaron and they said (Exodus 16:7), "What are we?' I gave greatness to David and he said (Psalms 22:7), "And I am a worm and not a man.'" All this because the man with an honest heart does not permit himself to be deceived by any virtue that he might possess, knowing the truth - that he does not thereby emerge from his lowliness, because of all of the faults that he must perforce possess. He realizes, too, that even in relation to those mitzvoth which he has attained he has not arrived at the ultimate goal. And he is aware that even if he possessed no other shortcoming than that of being flesh and blood, being born of woman, it would be more than enough to render him so lowly and inferior as to cause the feeling of sell-importance to be completely unbefitting him; for every virtue that he attains represents nothing more than God's lovingkindness to him, God's desire to be gracious to him, in spite of the fact that in point of his nature and his earthiness he is extremely lowly and shameful. His reaction, then, should be to thank Him who has been so gracious, and to constantly grow in Humility.

The situation is analogous to that of a pauper who accepts the gifts of kindness and cannot help but be ashamed because of them. The more kindness he receives the greater grows his shame. The similarity in situations will be perceived by anyone whose eyes are open enough to see himself as attaining virtues through the Blessed One. As King David said (Psalms 116:12), "What can I return to God for all of his lovingkindness to me?" We are acquainted with instances of great Saints who were punished because, with all of their Saintliness, they took credit for themselves. In relation to Nehemiah ben Chachaliah our Sages of blessed memory said (Sanhedrin 936), "Why was his work not called by his name? Because he took credit for himself." And Hezekiah said (Isaiah 38:17), "Peace is very bitter for me," because the Holy One Blessed be He had answered him (Ibid. 37:35), "And I will protect this city. I will come to its aid for my sake and for the sake of David, my servant." As our Sages of blessed memory say (Berachoth 10b), "That which one attributes to his own merit will be attributed to the merit of another." We see, then, that a man should not even take credit for the good things he has done, let alone become self-important and proud because of them.

But, in truth, all that we have said is intended for those who are like Abraham, Moses, Aaron and David and the other Saints that we have mentioned, but we, who are orphans of orphans, do not need all this, for we, have so many faults that we need not engage in much analysis to see our lowliness and to realize that all of our wisdom is of no account.

The greatest sage among us is no more than the disciple of the disciples of the early generations. It would do for us to understand and acknowledge this truth so that our hearts do not swell in vain. Let us recognize that our minds are insubstantial and our intelligence very weak, that we are very ignorant and very much subject to error, and that what knowledge we do possess is extremely minute. This being the case, there should certainly be no room in a person's feelings for self-importance, but only for shame and lowliness. This is self-evident.

We have thus far spoken of Humility of thought. We shall now speak of Humility of deed. This latter area is divided into four parts: conducting oneself with lowliness, bearing insults, hating authority and fleeing honor, and apportioning honor to all men.

Conducting oneself with lowliness:   This applies to one's manner of speaking, walking and sitting, and to all of one's movements. In relation to one's speech our Sages of blessed memory have said (Yoma 86a), "A man should always speak gently with his fellow men." And Scripture explicitly states (Ecclesiastes 9:17), "The words of the wise, spoken gently, are accepted." One's words must be words of honor and not words of shame, as it is said (Proverbs 11:12), "One who shames his friend is lacking a heart," and (Ibid. 18:3), "When the wicked man comes, there also comes shame."

In relation to one's manner of walking our Sages of blessed memory said (Sanhedrin 88b), "They sent from the Holy Land, "Who will inherit the World to Come? A humble man, whose knee is low, who is bent coming in and bent going out.' " One should not walk erect, nor in a formalized, mincing manner, but as one going about his tasks. Our Sages of blessed memory have said (Kiddushin 31a), "If one walks erect it is as if he pushes the feet of the Divine Presence." And it is written (Isaiah 10:33), "Those of great stature will be cut down."

As far as one's manner of sitting is concerned, a person should see to it that his place is among the lowly and not among the high. In this, too, Scripture is explicit (Proverbs 25:6), "Do not glorify yourself before a king and do not stand in the place of the great . . ." Along the same lines, our Sages of blessed memory said in Vayikra Rabbah (1.5), "Withdraw two or three levels from your place so that they will say to you, "Come forward,' rather than go forward and be told, "Get back.' " And concerning those who belittle themselves they said (Bava Metzia 85b), "All who belittle themselves for the sake of Torah in this world are elevated in the World to Come." They added further ( Yalkut Ezekiel 361), " "Remove the turban and lift off the crown' (Ezekiel 21:31) - all who are great in this world are small in the World to Come;" and, conversely, if one is small in this world, his time of greatness is in the World to Come. Elsewhere they said (Sotah 5a), "A man should learn from the example set by his Master. The Holy One Blessed be He bypassed all the mountains and hills, and caused his Divine Presence to come to rest upon Mount Sinai." This because of its lowliness. And (Rosh Hashanah 17a), " "To the remnant of His inheritance' (Micah 7:18) - to those who act as if they considered themselves remnants."

Bearing insults: Our Sages of blessed memory have explicitly stated (Ibid.), "Whose sins does He forgive? The sins of those who overlook the wrong committed against them." And (Shabbath 886), "Concerning those who are insulted but do not insult in return, who are shamed, but do not shame in return, it is said (Judges 5:31), "His lovers are like the emerging of the sun in its strength.' " They told of the great Humility of Bava ben Buta (Nedarim 666): "A Babylonian went up to Israel and got married. One time he said to his wife, "Cook for me ... Go and break them over the head of the door.' While Bava ben Buta was sitting in judgment, she, having mistaken her husband's meaning, broke them over his head. He asked her, "Why have you done this?' and she answered, "My husband told me to.' He said, "You did the will of your husband. May the Presence bring forth from you two sons like Bava ben Buta.' " They spoke likewise of the great Humility of Hillel (Shabbath 30b), "Our Rabbis learned, "One should always be humble in the manner of Hillel. . .' " And R. Abahu, with all of his Humility, found that he was not yet worthy of being considered Humble (Sotah 40a) : "R. Abahu said, "At first I though I was Humble, but when I saw that R. Abba of Akko gave one reason and his interpreter another, and he still did not become angry. I said to myself, "I am not humble."'

Hating authority and fleeing honor are explicitly treated in the Mishnah (Avoth 1.10) : "Love labor and hate authority." (Ibid. 4.9), "One whose heart swells in his handing out of legal decisions is foolish, wicked and haughty." (Eruvin 13b), "If one pursues honor, honor flees from him." (Pesikta Rabbathi), " "Do not be quick to enter into controversy' (Proverbs 28:8) - do not pursue authority, for what will you do afterwards? The next day they will come and put questions to you. How will you answer them?" "R. Menachama in the name of R. Tanchum said, "All who accept positions of authority for their personal satisfaction are like adulterers who derive enjoyment from the body of a woman.' " "R. Abahu said, "I [the Holy One Blessed be He] am called "holy"; if you do not possess all of My traits, do not assume authority.' " The incident of the disciples of Rabbi Gamliel bears out this idea. Although they were sorely pressed by their poverty, they declined positions of authority. In the words of our Sages of blessed memory (Horioth 10a), "Do you think I give you lordship? I give you servitude..." And (Pesachim 87b), "Woe to lordship, which buries its possessors." How do we know this? Through Joseph, who, because he conducted himself authoritatively, died before his brothers (Berachoth 55a).

In sum, authority is only a great burden upon the shoulders of those who bear it; for as long as a man is alone, dwelling in the midst of his nation, just one among many, he is held responsible only for himself, but once he ascends to lordship and authority he is held responsible for all who come within his authority and jurisdiction. He must look to the welfare of all of them, lead them with knowledge and intelligence, and set their actions aright. And if he does not do so, he comes, according to our Sages of blessed memory (Devarim Rabbah 1.10) within the province of "And their guilt is on your heads" (Deuteronomy 1:13). Honor is nothing but the vanity of vanities, which causes a man to defy his own mind and that of his Master and to forget his entire duty. One who recognizes it for what it is will certainly find it despicable and will hate it. The praise of men will be a burden to him, for when he sees men heaping praises upon him for qualities he does not even possess, he will only be ashamed and will grieve, feeling that it is not bad enough that he does not possess the virtues he is being praised for, but men must add to his shame by praising him falsely. Apportioning honor to all men: We have learned (Avoth 4.1), "Who is honored? One who honors his fellow-men." They said further, "How do we know that one must accord honor to his neighbor if he knows him to be greater than himself in even one respect ... (Pesachim 113b). "Hasten to greet every man" (Avoth 4:15), It was said (Berachoth 17a) about R. Yochanan ben Zakkai that no man ever preceded him in the pronunciation of the greeting, even a gentile in the market place." One must act with honor towards his neighbors, both in word and deed. Our Sages of blessed memory (Yevamoth 62b) have told of the twenty-four thousand disciples of R. Akiva who died because they did not accord honor to each other.

Just as shame is identified with the wicked, as seen in the aforementioned verse (Proverbs 18:3), "When the wicked man comes, there also comes shame," so is honor identified with the righteous. Honor dwells with them and does not separate itself from them, as Scripture states (Isaiah 24:23), "And before His elders there is honor."

The chief divisions of Humility have been explained. Decisions in relation to particular instances, as in all such cases, are subject to considerations of situation, time and place. "Let the wise man listen and add to his understanding" (Proverbs 1 :5).

Unquestionably, Humility removes many stumbling blocks from a man's path and brings him near to many good things; for the Humble man is little concerned with wordly affairs and is not moved to envy by its vanities. Furthermore, his company is very pleasant and he gives pleasure to his fellowmen. He is perforce never aroused to anger and to controversy; he does everything quietly and calmly. Happy are those who have been privileged to attain this trait! Our Sages of blessed memory have said (Yerushalmi Shabbath 1.3), "That which wisdom made a wreath for its head, Humility made a heel for its sandal." All of wisdom cannot approach it. This is clear.

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