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Only a Former Sinner Can Become Humble

Published on Monday September 13th, 2021

We live in a time when even the "humblest" among us maintains a blog, a Twitter account, a website, or any other outlet to make his voice heard, express his thoughts and publicize his experiences. When even the humblest of persons uses social media to boast their gifts, what are we to expect from the haughtiest and most powerful people? They most certainly strive to impose their world vision on others.

We are an egoistic creation. Yet we know from our sources and experience that pride is a guaranteed prelude to downfall. How then do we refrain from it? The only road towards humility is being honest about our experience, because experience leads to true humility.

Life never unfolds according to the sacred, theoretical ideals we aspire to; it develops within the context of our tortuous and complex human experience and calls for resourcefulness.

There is a Midrash that teaches that while Aaron was looking at the Altar, the Mizbe’ach, he had a sudden vision of the Golden Calf. The image shook him to the core of his being and frightened him so much that he could no longer approach the altar.

This Midrash scene is staggering! This is the Kohen Gadol himself, anticipating fulfilling his service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle), and what image pops into his mind? Not fear and excitement as we might suspect. Quite the contrary, as he approaches the most sacred altar, he perceives the most profane and degrading symbol related to the freshly redeemed Israelites, the Egel Hazahav.

Is this what preoccupies the mind of the High Priest at such an elated moment? What's the opinion of this Midrash on this teaching?

Now, imagine a contemporary rabbi and teacher standing in front of his class, teaching the Gemara to his yeshiva students, and noticing a student who seems lost in a daydream, with his eyes wide open.

"Yankel, asks the rabbi, what are you thinking about? I'm here, trying to explain a difficult passage of the Talmud that talks about an ox girding a cow, and you're elsewhere? What are you thinking about? "

Imagine poor Yankel! His lack of attention is not due to lack of sleep or an earlier argument with a friend. In fact, his thoughts are engrossed by "inappropriate" images which he watched the night before on the internet. Now his cheeks are burning with shame!

"Yankel? "

The poor student lowers his head. How can he confess the cause of his distraction? Is this scene not essentially like the scene described by the Midrash concerning Aaron? The High Priest was unable to concentrate on the Mizbe’ach because he perceived the image of the Golden Calf! Could Yankel have seen anything more profane and degrading on the Internet than the image that popped into Aaron's mind at that time?

Perhaps the rabbi ought to remember this Midrash and recognize that his student's distraction could be caused by an inability to achieve peace of mind. The student thus needs help and support, not an inevitable rejection.

We cannot escape our imagination. It can create disturbing virtual "realities". Our thoughts may lead us to bizarre places. Often, our troubled thoughts remain blurred by the perplexing situations we confront daily in our lives!

Imagine if, rather than Yankel, Aaron was a student of a contemporary Yeshiva. No doubt he would have been expelled from the Talmudic school just as poor Yankel was called to attention. How dare he daydream about these blasphemous images! Is there anything more revolting than thinking of the Golden Calf? And in front of the Mizbe’ach to make things worse!

Aaron could not escape the ripple effects of this blasphemy. He remained paralyzed, lurking in perturbing thoughts. He was unable to come to terms with the pure "wickedness" that assailed him. And so, darkness settled upon him.

Perhaps the role of the rabbi is to expel a student for blasphemy, but the experience of blasphemy carries the seed of ultimate teshuva and humility!

Aharon was unable to free himself from the image of the Golden Calf, even in the face of the holy Mizbe’ach. He thus convinced Moses to apply for the High Priest position.

This vision of Avodat Hashem (divine service) awakens two opposing elements: "on the one hand, shame and reluctance to serve God. "Who am I to fulfill this sacred task? And, simultaneously, it awakens the will and deep desire to fulfill God's command. In short, what is often perceived as inhibition and insecurity is considered by the Torah as a precondition for truthful and distinct Avodat Hashem.

My Rabbi, Rabbi Asher Freund, always emphasized what King David meant when he declared: "For I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before my eyes. (Tehillim 109: 5): "Seeing the beauty and sanctity of the world without forgetting one's own shortcomings; appreciating the world, while being aware of our personal faults and weaknesses".

This is the foundation upon which we can build true fulfillment and human excellence. The capacity to recognize our own ingrained deficiencies is the substantive marrow of true humility. None of us should ever fool ourselves. Our transgressions are real and serious, whether we are rabbis, students or mere mortals. None of us can claim to be above humanity.

Rashi's commentary on this verse sheds additional light on this concept. When I am constantly conscious and preoccupied with my sins, it seems to me that my sins are constantly before my eyes. This is what made Aharon see the Golden Calf as he approached the Mizbe’ach. This self-awareness need to be present in our mind if we wish to improve our Avodat Hashem.

At the inauguration of the Mishkan, Moshe publicly proclaimed that Aaron had been divinely designated as High Priest. Yet Aaron did not budge until the time came for him to perform his High priest duties.

"Approach the altar," called Moshe, "and prepare your sacrifices and burnt offerings. Yet Aharon could not move. He fully understood his tasks, as they were assigned to him by Hashem! It wasn't confusion that troubled Aharon, but fear of failure.

Although he certainly understood Aaron's hesitation, Moshe urged Aaron to react promptly. After all, had he, Moshe not tried to shy away from his calling during the Burning Bush episode? "I'm not fit for this task!" he protested. Knowing the unequivocal feelings in his brother's heart, why did Moshe pressure Aaron?

If truth be told, Moshe understood the challenge at hand and thus the necessity to help his brother become emboldened to tackle the assignment at once. "Approach the altar, because you have been chosen. Embolden yourself and go fulfill your pontifical service". The humblest person is the best suited to serve God.

The Baal Shem Tov suggests that Moshe's intervention was critical to Aaron's fulfillment of his role. "Why are you so reserved, complacent and unpretentious? It is precisely because you possess these attributes that you have been chosen to occupy the highest spiritual position."

"Humility is a precondition for authentic spirituality."

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that modesty, submission, resignation and gentleness are genuine paths to the Divine. These traits make us fully recognize that we need Hashem. Humility sharpens our perception that our existence is fragile and activates our intimacy with God. Humility stirs us to pray. Indeed, Aaron's humility, which manifested in displays of inhibition, shame and lack of self-assurance are the very traits that emboldened him to perform the Avoda with such zeal. In the verse that follows: "And Aaron went up to the altar" proves that Aaron's shyness is what motivates him to hurry and perform his tasks.

The Talmud teaches that humility leads a man to "fear sin". Unsurprisingly, pride (more than humility) comes naturally to most of us. But true humility is not the opposite of pride. It is rather a flood of gentleness and piety that comes from a true fear of sin. Humility is not an act, but an attitude, an approach to life that encompasses all aspects of human thought and behavior.

Only experience can bring a man to achieve humility. Humility is the resulting consequence of being aware of our deep imperfections. Although we are created in the image of God, we have also been formed from the dust of the earth. Whatever we do, wherever we turn, sin, error and failure inevitably await us.

Aaron served as High Priest and yet remained forever ashamed by his lamentable failure concerning the Golden Calf at the altar. A terrible sin! Yet, it was precisely because of the memory of this terrible fault that he was most worthy to perform in the service of God. This memory inspired the humility that made him truly great.

Only a truly humble being can become a great one. And only he who has sinned can become truly humble.  The Maharitz teaches that it is because of the sin of the Golden Calf that Aaron was divinely ordained to serve as Cohen Gadol. If not, how could he identify with the people's need for atonement if he himself had never experienced the shameful admission of sin leading to forgiveness?

"Why are you ashamed of the sin of the Golden Calf?" asks Moshe. "You had the humbling opportunity to sin, so you could help sinners atone for their sins."

As the book of Proverbs teaches: humility lifts a man, while pride submerges him.

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