Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayikra: Do not prance in arrogance
The next two things mentioned in the Mishnah are "not being arrogant with one's knowledge" and "not being eager to make halachic decisions". G'd chose Mount Sinai because of its modest height and He specifically wanted to give the Torah there. Only with Divine assistance is it humanly possible to remember everything one has learned. If someone expresses arrogance he will forget what he has learned. The incidents concerning Moses and Hillel teach us clearly how serious G'd looks upon a person who is arrogant, even if only for one instance. Rabbi Caro was chosen by Heavenly decree and inspired to write the Shulchan Aruch because of his supreme modesty. Throughout the generations we find that often the leading halachic authority of the generation was a most humble person. An arrogant person will not be able to progress in his studies. An arrogant person feels as if he has already learned everything and is rarely ready to listen to others. "Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path."
Not arrogant and not eager
We have previously mentioned that some of the things that are mentioned in the Mishnah refer to people who are already studying Torah to ensure that they do not forget what they have learned. The next two things mentioned in the Mishnah, "not being arrogant with one's knowledge" and "not being eager to make halachic decisions", belong in this category. In this Torah Attitude we will concentrate on the flaw of being arrogant about one's Torah knowledge.
Humility of Sinai
The Mishnah has previously mentioned humility as one of the things needed to acquire Torah (see Torah Attitude: Parashas Beha'aloscha: Great but humble, May 27, 2010). G'd taught us this message already at the revelation at Mount Sinai. In Tehillim (68:17) King David poetically speaks about the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and says: "Why are you prancing so arrogantly, you tall mountains?" The Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 99:1) says that this is a reference to Mount Tabor and Mount Carmel who both "wanted" that the Torah should be given on their peaks. This is the deeper meaning of the words of the prophet Jeremiah (46:18): "As Tabor among mountains, and as Carmel by the sea, will come." The Midrash Rabbah (Bamidbar 13:3) explains that these mountains "felt" that they were suited for the giving of the Torah because of their tallness. However, G'd chose Mount Sinai because of its modest height, and He specifically wanted to give the Torah there. The Talmud (Megillah 29a) says that this teaches us that a person who is arrogant suffers from a blemish that deters him from acquiring Torah.
The Maharal discusses how all of Moses' qualities did not qualify him to receive the Torah. It was only his supreme humbleness (see Bamidbar 12:3) that made him worthy of this exalted task. But even Moses, who was chosen to receive the Torah due to his humility, once expressed himself in a slightly arrogant fashion. And as soon as he lacked in his humbleness, it affected his ability to remember what he had studied. For only with Divine assistance is it humanly possible to remember everything one has learned (see Talmud Megillah 6b). And only the one who conducts himself with total humility will merit such assistance. When Moses appointed judges he instructed them how to set up their courts and said (Devarim 1:17): "Do not be scared of any person for the judgment is G'd's, and any case that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I shall hear it." On this Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 8a) that Moses here expressed some superiority above the other judges and as a consequence he was punished with forgetfulness. When the daughters of Zelophechad came to Moses to ask for a ruling in regard to inheritance, Moses could not remember what G'd had previously commanded him (see Bamidbar 27:5).
Similarly, Hillel was famous for his modesty. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) relates that for three years there was a dispute between the Schools of Shammai and Hillel regarding certain halachic issues. Finally, a Heavenly voice rang out and said, "Both opinions are the words of G'd, but in practical halacha one shall rule like the School of Hillel." The Talmud asks if both opinions are the words of G'd, why did the School of Hillel merit that halacha is in accordance with their opinion? The Talmud answers that this was because they were pleasant and humble and they always studied their opponent's opinion and analyzed it before their own opinion. This is how Hillel conducted himself and how he taught his disciples. However, the Talmud (Pesachim 66a) relates what happened the day Hillel was appointed to be president of the High Court. The scholars of the High Court were having a discussion about a certain halachic issue and no one could remember how to rule. Suddenly it was announced that a scholar had arrived from Babylon. His name was Hillel and he had studied under the tutelage of the two great leaders, Shemayah and Avtalyon (see Pirkei Avos 1:10-12). Rumour had it that he knew how to rule in this case. They called him in and after he gave his ruling they decided to make him the president of the High Court. In the course of his first lecture, he chastised his audience and told them that the reason that G'd had brought about that he had to make aliyah from Babylon and become the president of the court was because they had been lax and not studied sufficiently under Shemayah and Avtalyon. Soon after that, another halachic question was put in front of Hillel and he had to admit that he had learned about this case but could not remember the ruling. The Talmud concludes that this teaches us that if someone expresses arrogance he will forget what he has learned.
Seriousness of humility
Neither Moses nor Hillel lost their position as it was a one time slip in their regular conduct of humility and totally out of character. However, it teaches us clearly how serious G'd looks upon a person who is arrogant, even if only for one instance.
Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai, better known by his acronym Chida, writes that it was revealed to one of the sages that at the time when Rabbi Yosef Caro wrote the Shulchan Aruch there were another two rabbis who were of similar status in their knowledge of halacha. However, Rabbi Caro was chosen by Heavenly decree and inspired to write the Shulchan Aruch because of his supreme modesty.
Rabbi Grodzinski and Rabbi Feinstein
It is interesting to note that throughout the generations we find that often the leading halachic authority of the generation was a most humble person. Prior to World War II, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, who was the undisputed halachic authority at the time, was famous for his pleasantness and humility. Similarly, Rabbi Moishe Feinstein, who after the war was accepted as the halachic authority of his generation, was also known for his modesty.
Arrogant person not progress
It is obvious that an arrogant person will find it very difficult to study under a mentor because he will always feel that he knows more than everybody else. Such a person is not ready to subdue himself to other's opinions and will therefore not be able to progress in his studies.
Arrogance like a young child
Rabbi Dessler explains that when a young child first learns the letters, he thinks that he knows everything there is to know. Later, he learns the vowels and that the letters can be combined into words, and eventually words can be made into sentences. In his infantile mind, at every stage of his development he thinks there is nothing more to know. This is how the arrogant person approaches any subject. As soon as he has learned something about a subject he feels as if he has already learned everything and is rarely ready to listen to others.
Lamp and light for my path
On the other hand, someone who approaches his Torah studies with humility will realize that every time he studies something, there is much more to learn and he will always be eager to listen to others and hear what they have to teach him. This is the deeper meaning of what King David says in Tehillim (119:105): "Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path." The Yalkut Shimoni asks why it says both a "lamp" and "a light for my path". Is this not redundant? The Yalkut answers that King David expresses that when he starts to study a Torah subject, it is on a small scale comparable to a little lamp. But as he progresses, more and more vistas open up and reveal a big bright light. This is the path of the humble. Whoever follows this path will continuously grow in his learning, and in his humility he will always keep far away from any kind of arrogance.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at email@example.com .
Shema Yisrael Torah Network