Shiur #04: Chapter Four

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

Pirkei Avot - The Wisdom of the Fathers


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Dedicated by Michal and Yeruchum Rosenberg, in honor of the birth of their son Yonatan Mordechai.

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Shiur #04: Chapter Four

By Rav Moshe Taragin

We find in the fourth perek two statements in different mishnayot about humility and meekness. Mishna 10 includes Rabbi Meir's comment about being 'sh'fal ru'ach (meek of spirit) in the presence of others.' Though Rebbi Meir's statement lauds humility in general, it relates particularly to outward demeanor: one should demonstrate a low spirit in the presence of all others. Authentic humility cannot remain an internal attitude - though it clearly must begin at the contemplative or reflective level. It must manifest itself in behavior - certainly regarding our posture in front of God, but most importantly, this humility must express itself in the world of interpersonal relations. Several midrashim mention that the Torah was delivered in a desert since it is a barren, 'humble' terrain. It must be stated in no uncertain terms that Judaism does not glorify or invite victimization. Such a condition is unconscionable and should be campaigned against as forcefully as possible. But by the same token, much of the strife and hatred which plague society result from inflated self-assessment. He who perceives his high stature takes easy offense or insult and ultimately seeks in some way to redress those indignities. Never is a person more vigilant and pious than when he defends his honor, natural right, or anything else he believes he deserves. An individual with a more sober and modest sense of self allows insults or unfortunate circumstances to glance off him. His heart immediately considers his own relative inadequacy and he is more concerned with his efforts to overcome and surmount his limitations than he is in defending his current state against challenge. A person should sculpt an identity similar to a barren desert - slow to take insult, with little expectation of favors from others, freely sharing his time and resources, and ignoring slight or insult.

Another mishna, in perek 5 (19), contrasts the manners of Avraham with those of Bilam - who is typically seen as a foil to the morality of the Avot. Among the traits ascribed to the 'students of Avraham' is 'nefesh she'feila' (a 'meek soul') as well as 'ruach nemukha' ('low spirit'). While the precise difference between these two aspects is unclear, at least one of them certainly speaks of Avraham's unassuming nature. By contrast, 'Bilam's students' display 'nefesh rechava' (the opposite of 'nefesh she'feila') and 'rua'ch gevoha' (the opposite of 'ru'ach nemukha'), as manifest in Bilam's haughty and self-aggrandizing responses to his suitors.

Mishna 4, however, records an even more emphatic warning against arrogance. It quotes Rabbi Levitas ish Yavneh as exhorting, 'Me'od me'od hevei sh'fal ru'ach' ('one should be VERY VERY modest'). Through the repetition of the term 'me'od' ('very'), Rabbi Levitas obviously seeks to present a far more severe admonition then Rabbi Meir's statement (mishna 10). This difference in terminology perhaps reflects the different opinions cited by the gemara in Sota (5a). After delineating the perils of egotism, the gemara cites in the name of Rav that a talmid chakham must retain "one-eighth" – meaning, a slight measure – of arrogance. Most commentators assert that a degree of self-estimation is vital in establishing one's authority and enabling the embrace of his opinions. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak disagreed and exclaimed, 'Lo mina ve-lo mikzata' - (literally, 'Not of it, nor a fraction of it'). Fearing the risk of unbridled self-aggrandizement, Rav Nachman outlawed even a minimal trace of haughtiness. It would appear that Rebbi Levitas intended a similar attitude when he stressed humility in such forceful terms.

Perhaps the most famous statement about the perils of arrogance and the necessity to eliminate even traces of pride is found in the Rambam's celebrated discussion of the concept of the "middle path." In outlining his basic guidelines for character development, the Rambam (Hilkhot De'ot perek 1) adopted the famous position often referred to as shevil ha-zahav, or the 'golden mean.' True personal success is a function of balance - not too happy, not too disconsolate; not too frugal, nor too free by recklessly squandering funds. There are, however, two exceptions to this rule, which the Rambam lists in the second perek: a person must avoid even traces of both anger and arrogance. In Hilkhot De'ot, the Rambam does not immediately describe the reason why these two character traits are singled out. However, in his commentary to the mishna (4:4), he describes arrogance as 'severe' and a trait which causes great human suffering. He provides an uncharacteristically long discussion about the trait of humility and the repugnance of personal arrogance.

Beyond Rabbi Levitas's emphasis on the gravity of arrogance, he also provides a basis for developing humility - the futility of man. He concludes his phrase encouraging humility by claiming 'she-tikvat enosh rima' - Man's future is dust (literally, "worms"). From among the many possible candidates for the basis upon which to advocate humility, Rabbi Levitas chooses man's fragility and mortality. Other sources look to Torah study, Nature, and, of course, our relationship with Ha-kadosh Barukh Hu as the catalysts of humility. But Rabbi Levitas evidently believed that the most powerful trigger is the reality of human frailty and Man's existential limitations; this awareness alone is sufficient reason to lower one's self-evaluation and conduct himself humbly and unassumingly.