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With this week’s parashah, begins the long history of the People of Israel. And it begins in the dark bondage of Egypt. It seems like a dreary beginning indeed. We would have hoped that those who were destined to be Hashem’s Chosen People would have a more grandiose beginning. But there is an all important lesson to be learned here.

The Sages taught (Yuma 22b), “We do not appoint a community leader unless he has a murky past so that if he begins to become arrogant we will say to him ‘Look behind you.’”

Contrary to the other nations of the world, in Judaism the fundamental foundation of leadership is humility. We find that midos tovos (good character traits), as important as they are, are not mentioned in the Torah. The only exception to this is the evil trait of conceit which is specifically referred to. What is most interesting, though, is that it is discussed particularly in reference to a Jewish king. Among the mitzvahs specifically designated to him is the injunction to have his own Sefer Torah which he must constantly keep at his side. The reason is, “So that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren” (Devarim 17:20).

We all bow down four times in Shemonah Esrei (the eighteen benedictions which compile the essence of prayer). The law of a king, however, is that, “Once he has bowed (at the beginning of the prayer) he doesn’t straighten himself out (until the end)” (Berachos 34b). The Torah demands that those who are in high positions be especially careful to be humble and not let their power go to their heads.

Because the Jewish People were destined to be the Chosen People and the “Light unto the Nations” (Yesha’ayahu 42:6), it was imperative that their beginning be as lowly slaves so that they would never feel haughty or arrogant as a result of their position of authority.

It is extremely difficult to be both the elite of the world and the most modest. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that the Torah commands us to remember twice every day that we were slaves in Egypt. Recalling our humble beginning prevents our heads from swelling with pride as we go through history as the Chosen People.

“Not because you are more numerous than all the peoples did Hashem desire you and choose you, for you are the fewest of all the peoples” (Devarim 7:7). Rashi brings the explanation of the Sages that “you are the fewest” means “you hold yourselves small.” “You regard yourselves as small, like Avraham who said (Bereishis 28:27), ‘For I am dust and ashes’, and like Moshe and Aharon who said (Shemos16:7), ‘And we, what are we?’; Not like Nevuchadnezzar who said (Yesha’ayahu 14:14), ‘I will be like the Most High’, and Sancheriv who said (Ibid 36:20), ‘Who are they among all the gods of these countries that have delivered their countries out of my hand?’, and Chiram who said (Yechezkel 28:2), ‘I am a god, I sit in the seat of God.’”

Our greatest leaders were the most humble and they are an inspiration to all of us to follow in their ways. Just as we learn in this week’s parashah that when Hashem directed Moshe Rabbeinu, at the burning bush, to become the leader of the Jewish People and take them out of Egypt he replied, “Who am I that I should go to Par’oh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?”(Shemos 3:11).

Rabbi Shalom Shar’abi, ztvk”l, one of the greatest Kabbalists, came to Israel from Yemen when he was a young, unmarried man. Although he was very well versed in both revealed and hidden Torah, he hid his vast knowledge and introduced himself to Rabbi Gedaliah Chiyun, ztvk”l, head of Yeshivas Bet El, the center for the study of Kabbalah in Jerusalem, as a plain, unlearned Jew who begged to be accepted as the shamash (caretaker) of the yeshiva. For his salary he requested merely bread and water and a place to sleep in a corner of the beis hamidrash (study hall). The rabbi liked the young man and hired him.

During the shiurim (lectures) in Kabbalah, young Shalom would stay in his corner, pretending to be asleep, but actually he would listen to every word that was being discussed between the great rabbi and his students. Once, Rabbi Chiyun was stuck on a particularly difficult piece of Kabbalah which neither he nor his students could comprehend. Shalom knew the explanation but was now faced with a dilemma. Should he explain the piece to the Rabbis, thus revealing his true identity, or should he continue to remain incognito? Finally, he decided on a way to do both. He wrote the explanation on a piece of paper. After the shiur, when he cleaned up the beis hamidrash and returned the seforim (books) to the bookshelves, he slipped the paper into Rabbi Chiyun’s sefer at the place where they were learning.

Imagine the Rabbi’s surprise, the next morning, when he opened his sefer and found an anonymous note explaining the difficult passage they were holding by. This happened several times and the Rabbi mentioned it to his household who lived right opposite the yeshiva. Rabbi Chiyun’s daughter, Chanah, was especially curious to find out who was the mysterious note writer, and she kept glancing through the window at the almost empty beis hamidrash. Finally, she noticed the humble shamash leafing through her father’s sefer and she thought she saw him put something inside it. She immediately told her father what she had seen and added that she suspects that Shalom is not the ignorant fellow he purports to be.

That afternoon, Rabbi Chiyun called Shalom to him and decreed that he must tell him the truth. The shamash had no choice but to tell the Rabbi that he was well versed in Kabbalah and had been writing the notes with the answers to their most difficult questions. Rabbi Chiyun immediately appointed him to be a teacher in his academy and gave him his daughter, Chanah, as a wife. Eventually, Reb Shalom Shar’abi succeeded his father in law as the Rosh Yeshiva of Bet El and wrote very significant books on Kabbalah.

May his memory be a blessing to all of Israel, Amen.

Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel