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Mesillat Yesharim
( Path of the Just )

CHAPTER XXIII

CONCERNING THE MEANS OF ACQUIRING HUMILITY

THERE ARE TWO FACTORS which bring a person to Humility: habit and thought. Habit, in this respect, consists in a person's accustoming himself little by little to Humility by conducting himself with lowliness after the fashion previously mentioned - occupying a humble seat, walking at the end of the company, and wearing modest garments (respectable but not showy). By accustoming himself to this mode of conduct, he will cause Humility to enter into his heart and to inhabit it little by little until it has securely imbedded itself there. For since it is a person's nature to swell with self-importance, it is difficult to root out this inclination at its source. It is only through outward actions, which are under his control, that he can affect his inner self, which is not to a similar extent subject to his direction, as we explained in relation to Zeal. All of this is contained in the statement of our Sages of blessed memory (Berachoth 17a), "A man should always be subtle in his fear of God;" that is, he should seek devices by which to counteract his nature and its inclination until he is victorious over them.

Thought in respect to the acquisition of Humility resolves itself into several considerations. The first is ,contained in the words of Akavia ben Mahalalel (Avoth 3.1), "Know whence you come -from a putrid drop; and where you are going - to a place of dust, worms and maggots; and before whom you are destined to give an accounting - before the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He." In truth, all of these thoughts counteract pride and promote Humility. When a man regards the lowliness of his earthly nature and his inferior beginnings, he has no reason to feel self-important at all, but to be ashamed and degraded. The situation is analogous to that of a swineherd who has attained lordship. As long as he remembers his early days it will be impossible for him to become proud. If one considers also that after all of his greatness he will return to the earth to be food for maggots, it is certain that his pride will be humbled and his grandeur forgotten. For what is his good and his greatness if the end is shame and disgrace? And if he will reflect further and picture the moment of his entering the great court of the heavenly host, seeing himself in the presence of the King of Kings, the Holy One Blessed be He, holy and pure to the limits of holiness and purity, in the midst of holy ones, servants of strength, strong in power, doing His bidding, entirely free of imperfection - and he standing before them, deficient, lowly and shameful in point of his nature; unclean and ugly in point of his actions -will he be able to raise his head, to open his mouth? And if he is asked, "Where then is your mouth? Where is the pride and honor that you knew in your world?" what will he answer? How will he meet this rebuke? There is no question that if a person would for one moment form a true, forceful impression of this idea, all pride would take flight from him, never to return.

The second consideration that should be reflected upon for the purpose of acquiring Humility is the variation of circumstances that is produced by time and the many changes to which it gives rise. The rich may easily become poor; the rulers, servants; and the honored, insignificant. If one can so easily be reduced to a condition which he finds so shameful today, how can he feel pride in his own condition, with which he cannot be secure? How many different kinds of sicknesses (God forbid) is a person prone to, which could make it necessary for him to beg others for help and assistance, for a little relief? How many afflictions (God forbid) may visit him, which could cause him to seek out many whom he formerly disdained to greet in order to gain their help. We see these things with our own eyes every day. They should serve to remove a man's pride from his heart and to clothe him in humility and lowliness.

And if a person thinks further into his duty in relation to the Blessed One and considers how much he forsakes it and how weak he is in its performance, he will certainly be ashamed and not proud. He will feel degraded and his heart will not swell. As stated by Scripture (Jeremiah 31 :17,18), "I have heard Ephraim lamenting . .. "For after I repented I knew regret, and after I understood, I smote my thighs. I felt ashamed and degraded ... " Above all, one should constantly reflect upon the weakness of human intelligence and the many errors and deceits to which it is subject, upon its always being closer to error than to true understanding. He should constantly be in fear, then, of this danger and seek to learn from all men; he should give ear to advice lest he go astray. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avoth 4.1), "Who is wise? One who learns from all men." And it is stated (Proverbs 12:15), "One who gives ear to advice is wise."

Among the deterrents to Humility are an abundance of the goods of this world and satiation with them; as Scripture explicitly states (Deuteronomy 8:12), "Lest you eat and become satiated . .. And your heart be uplifted. .." It is for this reason that the Saints found it beneficial for a man to afflict himself at intervals - to suppress the inclination to pride, which grows strong only through abundance. As our Sages of blessed memory have said (Berachoth 32a), "A lion does not roar over a basket of straw, but over a basket of meat."

Heading the list of deterrents are ignorance and insufficiency of true understanding. It is to be observed that pride is most prevalent among the more ignorant. Our Sages of blessed memory have said (Sanhedrin 24a), "A sign of pride is poverty of Torah" and (Zohar Balak), "A sign of complete ignorance is self-praise" and (Bava Metzia 856), "One coin in a pitcher makes a great deal of noise" and (Bereshith Rabbah 16.3), "The barren trees were asked "Why are your voices heard?' and they answered, "So that at least our voices might be heard and remembered.' " We have seen that Moses, the choicest of men, was the humblest of all men.

Another deterrent to Humility is keeping company with or being served by flatterers, who, to steal a person's heart with their flattery so that he will be of benefit to them, will praise and exalt him by magnifying to their very limits the virtues that he does possess and by attributing to him virtues that he does not possess, his attributes sometimes being the very opposite of those he is being praised for. And since, in the last analysis, a person's understanding is insubstantial and his nature weak, so that he is easily deceived (especially by something towards which his nature inclines), when he hears these words being uttered by someone he has faith in, they enter into him like poison and he falls into the net of pride and is broken. A case in point is that of Yoash, who acted virtuously all the days that he was taught by Yehoyada Hakohen, his mentor (II Kings 12:3). When Yehoyada died, Yoash's servants came and began to flatter him and to magnify his virtues until, after they had virtually deified him, he gave heed to them. It is to be clearly seen that most officers and kings, and men in a position of influence in general, regardless of their level, stumble, and are corrupted by the flattery of their subordinates.

One whose eyes are open will, therefore, exercise more care and vigilance in relation to the actions of one he would choose as his friend or advisor or as the overseer of his household than he would in relation to his food and drink. For food and drink can injure one's body alone, whereas companions and overseers can destroy his soul, his might and all of his honor. King David, may Peace be upon him, said (Psalms 101:6,7), "One who walks uprightly, he will serve me. A deceiver will not dwell within my house..." A person's good, then, is to seek honest friends, who will open his eyes to what he is blind to and rebuke him with love in order to rescue him from all evil. For what a man cannot see because of his natural blindness to his own faults, they will see and understand. They will caution him and he will be protected. Concerning this it is said (Proverbs 24:6), "There is salvation in much counsel."

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