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Parashat Shemini: Understanding Humility

The events described in Parashat Shemini offer us a remarkable glimpse into the humble characters of Moshe and Aharon, and an opportunity to examine more closely the concept of humility and its importance in Torah life.

In this Parasha, the Torah tells us of the events of "opening day," the day the Mishkan was inaugurated and Aharon officiated as a Kohen for the very first time. G-d instructed Moshe that Aharon should offer a series of special sacrifices, after which the Shechina, the manifestation of the Divine Presence, would descend upon the Mishkan. Rashi (9:23) tells that after Aharon completed the service, he entered the Mishkan, but, to his disappointment, nothing happened. Aharon’s reaction was something which we hear far too infrequently: "I know that the Almighty is angry with me, and it is because of me that the Shechina has not descended." In other words, Aharon blamed himself. Whereas most people tend to point fingers at others when things do not go as planned, casting accusations in every which direction except inward, Aharon placed the blame squarely upon himself, figuring that the Shechina did not descend because of his role in the sin of the golden calf. Aharon took the blame for the Shechina’s absence.

Rashi continues that Moshe joined Aharon inside the Mishkan, prayed to G-d, and then the Shechina arrived. When Moshe returned outside, he said to the people, "My brother Aharon is worthier and more prominent than me, for it was through his sacrifices and service that the Shechina shall reside among you." We might have excused Moshe for feeling some degree of pride for bringing the Shechina, but this is not what he did. Quite to the contrary – he credited Aharon for this achievement, going so far as to explicitly say that Aharon was superior.

These events, as mentioned, provide a powerful lesson in humility. Humility means recognizing that we cannot take credit for our achievements. Most people try taking credit for even that which they did not do. Moshe and Aharon show us that we should avoid priding ourselves and seeking recognition even for that which we actually do.

Why is this so, and how does one develop this quality?

Quite simply, humility is about recognizing that everything we have is from G-d. Imagine a person receiving a million-dollar gift and then priding himself over his wealth. How can he take pride for something he did nothing to achieve? Well, this is actually the situation that each and every one of us finds himself in. Nothing we have is our own; it is all given to us by G-d. Even if we achieve through our intelligence and hard work, we must ask ourselves in all honesty, who enabled us to do that? G-d gives us our intelligence and energy, and He can take it away from us whenever He decides, in an instant. And, as we all know, there are no guarantees of success, no matter how bright one is, how hard he works, and how well-connected he is. We have nothing without G-d – not wealth, not intelligence, not health, not our families, not our intellectual achievements. So it is absurd for us to take pride in our accomplishments, every one of which is a gift granted to us by Hashem.

One of the most striking examples of humility told in the Torah is Abraham Abinu’s declaration, "Anochi Afar Ve’efer" – "I am but earth and ash" (Bereshit 18:27). Why did Abraham compare himself specifically to "earth and ash"? The Rabbi of Brisk explained that earth has no meaningful past, but has the potential for a great future, as it can produce valuable and nourishing vegetation, and majestic trees. Ash is just the opposite – it cannot be used for anything of significance in the present or future, but it was, in the past, something of significance. Abraham tells G-d that he is both earth and ash; he has accomplished nothing on his own in the past, and can accomplish nothing on his own in the future. As a human being, he is entirely dependent on G-d for everything. He cannot take any credit for his achievements in the past, and cannot look forward to any independent accomplishments in the future.

Humility assumes such an important role in Torah life because it is a natural outgrowth of our belief in G-d’s unlimited control over us and over the world. When we live with this awareness, we understand just how absurd it is to seek honor and recognition, and why we should be focusing our attention instead on bringing honor to the One who truly deserves it – the Almighty.

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