By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
We live at a time when even the most “humble” amongst us seems to have a blog, or a Twitter account, or a website or, or, or… or some other way or means for amplifying his voice, perspectives, “teachings,” etc. As you can imagine, if the humble is so quick to trumpet his gifts then the more prideful and powerful is certain to make sure we hew to his view of the world.
We are a prideful creation. Yet we know – from our teachings and our experience – that pride is a guaranteed prelude to a fall. How then to step away from our pride? The only way to become humble, is to be honest about our experience, for experience is the only route we have to genuine humility.
Life is never lived in the theoretical, sacred ideal we aspire to; it is always lived in the complex, nitty-gritty of human experience.
There is a midrash that speaks of Aharon as he was looking at the mizbeiach. According to the midrash, as Aharon gazed at the mizbeiach, it suddenly appeared to him as the Golden Calf. The image shook him to the core of his being and made him full of such fear that he could not approach it!
The scene the midrash depicts is mindboggling! Here we have the Kohen Gadol preparing to fulfill Avoda in the Mishkan itself and what image fills his mind? Not the fear and trembling we would suspect as he approached the centrality of all that was sacred to the Jews but rather the most profane and degrading symbol of the newly redeemed Jews, the egel hazahav.
That’s what fills the mind of our High Priest at such a moment? What can we make of such a moment?
Now, imagine a contemporary rabbi, a melamed living in the “real world”. As he stands before his class, teaching a blat Gemorah to his yeshiva students, he notes a student seemingly lost in a daydream.
“Yankel?” the rabbi asks, “what are you thinking about? Here I am, trying to explain this difficult Talmudic passage about the ox that gored the cow and you… you are someplace else? What are you thinking of?”
Imagine poor Yankel! His lack of attention is not due to a restless night or an earlier misunderstanding with a friend. Rather, his thoughts were on some “inappropriate” photographs he had seen online the evening before! How his cheeks burn in shame!
The poor student lowers his head. How can he possibly say what caused his distraction? But, isn’t Yankel’s distraction essentially the same as Aharon’s? The High Priest was unable to focus on the mizbeiach because he was “daydreaming” of the Golden Calf! Could Yankel have seen anything more profane or demeaning on the Internet than the image that filled Aharon’s mind in that moment?
Perhaps the rebbi would be wise to recall this midrash and recognize that his talmid’s distraction might be caused by his inability to find peace of mind. He needs help and support, not the inevitable rejection the student can expect.
* * *
We cannot escape our imagination and how it creates realities from that which troubles us. Our thoughts lead us to awkward places just as our troubled thoughts remain in turmoil as a result of the awkward places we visit!
Imagine if, rather than Yankel, Aharon was our modern-day yeshiva bocher. No doubt he would have been expelled from his yeshiva, just as poor Yankel undoubtedly would be. How dare he dwell on such profanities! “Have you nothing better to think about than the golden calf?! And in front of the mizbeiach no less!”
Aharon could not escape that profanity. It was always there, lurking, shadowing his thoughts. He could not resolve the sheer “badness” of that moment. And so, the darkness remained.
It is the pride of the rebbi that would expel a student for such profanity but it is the experience of the profanity that bears the seed of ultimate resolution and humility!
It was because Aharon was unable to free himself of the image of the Golden Calf even before the holy mizbeiach that convinced Moshe that he was the person to be the High Priest – l’kach nivecharta.
This understanding of avodas Hashem brings to bear two elements. Shame and reluctance to do God’s work – “Who am I to do this sacred task…?” – and eager and strengthened to fulfill God’s command. In short, that which is too often perceived as inhibition and insecurity is viewed by Torah as being the exact prerequisite to genuine and true Avodas HaShem.
Our rebbe, Rav Asher Freund ZT’L, always emphasized that this is what Dovid Hamelech meant when he said, “For I recognize my transgressions, and my sin is before me always.” (Tehilim 109:5)
To be able to see the beauty and sacredness of the world without forgetting one’s own shortcomings, to see the world through the “spectacles of our shortcomings” so to speak, is the foundation upon which real accomplishment and human excellence can be built. The ability to recognize one’s own deep shortcomings is the stuff of genuine humility. None of us should ever fool ourselves. Our transgressions are real and they are serious, whether we are rabbis or simple talmidim. None of us can claim to be above our humanity.
Rashi’s comment on this posuk illuminates this idea. Because I am constantly aware and concerned about my sins, it seems to me that the sins are constantly before me. This is what caused Aharon to see the egel as he approached the mizbeiach; it is what must color our own self-awareness.
* * *
At the consecration of the Mishkan, Moshe publicly proclaimed that Aharon had been divinely appointed as Kohen Gadol. Even so, Aharon remained reticent when the time came to discharge his duties as Kohen Gadol.
“Approach the altar,” Moshe prompted, “and prepare your sin and burnt offerings.”
Still, Aharon remained still. He understood his tasks. They had been assigned by HaShem Himself! It was not confusion that humbled Aharon. Rather, it was his own fear and trembling. Shehaya Aharon bosh ve’yare lageshet.
Yet Moshe urged Aharon on. But surely Moshe understood. After all, he himself tried to turn away from his calling at the Burning Bush. “I am not the speaker for this task!” he had protested. Why would he push his brother on when he knew precisely the feelings in his brother’s heart?
In truth, it was because he understood that he was insistent that his brother act. “Approach the altar, for you were chosen. Embolden yourself and come do your priestly activities. The one endowed with true humility is best suited to serve G-d.”
The Baal Shem Tov suggested that Moshe’s counsel was essential to Aharon’s role. “Why are you withdrawn, submissive and unassuming? LeKach nivecharta. It is precisely because you possess these qualities that you were chosen to assume the most exalted religious position.
“Humility is the prerequisite for genuine spirituality.”
The Baal Shem Tov taught that modesty, submission, self-abasement and meekness are true paths to G-dliness. These lead to our recognition of why we always need Him. Humility sharpens our focus on our fragile existence even as it prods our intimacy with G-d. Humility makes us prayerful. Indeed, that very humility which left Aharon inhibited, bosh and insecure is the very quality which prompted him to perform the Avoda so zealously. This bosh motivates Aharon in the next pasuk, “and Aharon went up to the altar.”
* * *
The Talmud teaches that humility results in the “fear of sin.” Unsurprisingly, it is pride and not humility that comes naturally to us. But true humility is not the opposite of pride. Rather, it is a fullness of the gentleness and piety that comes from a true fear of sin. Humility is not a single act but a stance, an approach to life which encompasses every aspect of human thought and behavior.
Humility is only achieved through experience. It is the necessary result of an awareness of our profound imperfection. Though we are created in the image of G-d, we are also formed from the clay of the earth. Whatever we do, wherever we turn, sin, error and failure await us.
Aharon stood as the Kohen Gadol and yet, he would forever remain humbled by his crushing failure at the altar of the Golden Calf. A powerful sin indeed! Yet, it was precisely because of his remembrance of his dreadful sin that he was most worthy to stand in the service of G-d. That remembrance inspired the humility which made him great.
Only the truly humble can be made great. And only he who has sinned can know humility. Maharitz teaches that it was because he sinned that Aharon was Divinely ordained to serve as Kohen Gadol. Otherwise, how would it be possible for him to personally identify with the humbled sinner’s need for atonement without having personally experienced the humbling need for forgiveness?
“Why are you ashamed of the golden calf?” Moshe asked Aharon. Lekach nivecharta. “You were granted the humbling opportunity to sin, so that you would then be able to atone for all sinners.”
As Mishlei teaches us, Humility raises up, while pride only serves to bring down.