Humility - The Key to Greatness
In the end of the Torah portion God describes Moses as the most humble man upon the face of the Earth. According to the Torah's definition of greatness, Moshe represents the ultimate level a person can reach; he attained the greatest closeness to God humanly possible, learnt the most Torah and was the teacher of all of Klal Yisrael. It is clear that his outstanding humility is directly connected to his greatness.
This begs the question: There are numerous good character traits such as kindness and honesty. Why is the attribute of humility the one that enabled him to become so great?
In order to answer this it is instructive to analyze the trait which is the opposite of humility - arrogance. The Talmud describes God's hatred for the arrogant person - God says that there is no room for Himself and the arrogant person to 'reside together. What does this mean? The arrogant person believes that he does not need God to succeed in life. He feels that his own talents are sufficient and therefore he does not need God's 'help'. Accordingly, God responds measure for measure and complies with this attitude; He provides the arrogant person with no Heavenly help (siata dishmaya) in his endeavors. That is the meaning of the idea that God won't reside with him. Therefore, he is greatly limited to what he can achieve by his own talents since he is a mere human. He may be intelligent, but his intelligence will only take him to a certain point. After that he is helpless.
The humble person has the opposite attitude. He realizes that he has talents but that they are God-given. Accordingly, he acknowledges that anything he strives to do can only be accomplished with Heavenly help. This realization is not limiting, in fact it is incredibly empowering. When a person recognizes that God provides him with whatever ability is necessary, it becomes obvious that his potential is unlimited because the source for his success is Himself unlimited! If a person is willing to exert the necessary effort in doing God's will then he can achieve success that even transcends the regular laws of nature.
This explains why Moses' attribute of humility enabled him to reach such incredible heights. He realized that anything he tried to do was only through the power given to him by God. This recognition removed any limitations on what he could do, and as we see many times in the Torah he attained supernatural achievements.(1)
In the portion of Vayakhel the Ramban describes an example of how humility - the recognition that God is the source of all our strengths - can enable ordinary people to achieve great things. The Torah, in discussing the building of the Tabernacle, tells us that "every man whose heart inspired him came." The Ramban explains that this refers to the people who came to do the skilled work such as sewing, weaving and building. But there is a difficulty with this explanation - the Jews in Egypt had no opportunity to learn skilled activities such as these so how did these people suddenly possess the ability to do them? He answers that "their hearts were raised in the ways of God" to the degree that they found in their nature the ability to do things that they had never learnt how to do.(2) They realized that God is the source of all our ability and consequently they were able to achieve the impossible.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz develops this theme even further.(3) He quotes the verse in Proverbs: "Go to the ant, you lazy one, see its ways and become wise." (4) The Midrash explains what we are supposed to learn from the ant: "This ant only lives six months and all it needs to eat [its whole life] is one and a half kernels of wheat, and it goes and gathers all the wheat and barley that it can find… and why does it do this? Because it says to itself, 'perhaps Hashem will decree for me life and this food will be ready for me to eat'. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said that he once saw an ant's hole in which there was 300 kor of grain, therefore King Solomon said 'go to the ant, lazy one', you too should prepare for yourself mitzvot from this world for the next world."(5)
Rav Shmuelevitz notes that the ant gathers 300 kor based on the distant possibility that he may live long enough to eat it. This, he writes, "would be a miracle without comparison, because in six months he eats one and a half kernels. If so, to eat 300 kor he would need to live hundreds of thousands of years! Such a miracle has never occurred in the history of the world…nevertheless the ant works hard to do this. In the same way, man is obligated to work and prepare himself in this world for this world, and if he does not do so - does not work according to the remotest possibility of a miracle, then he is considered lazy!"
He then explains that this is the explanation of the Tana d'bey Eliyahu(6) that everyone is obligated to ask himself when he will reach the level of the Forefathers. "All one's behavior and actions must be directed at reaching the level of the actions of the Holy Forefathers. Even though the distance is extremely far, much farther than the 300 kor for the ant, and according to the normal laws of nature, it is impossible to reach it, nevertheless man is obligated to strive to do whatever he can to attain it." He continues that such ambitious goals can indeed be attained but only through siata dishmaya. Indeed he points out that our ability to ever conquer the negative inclination is only possible due to God's help, as stated in the Talmud that "if not for God's help we cannot defeat the negative inclination." (7)
Thus we have seen that humility is the key to greatness. Once we tap into this unlimited source then we can reach incredible heights. Of course, the level which Moses achieved seems very distant; however we could all find instances in our lives where it was clear that the siata dishmaya was the cause of our success. If we can access the feeling that we experience on those occasions then we can quite easily recognize that God is the source of all our abilities.
How much can a person achieve when he plugs into God's unlimited power? When one visits the home of a Rabbi in Aish Hatorah it is very likely that he will see a photo of one of the great leaders of the generation, Rav Shach with a statement underneath it: About 30 years ago, he visited Aish HaTorah and spoke there. He was struck by the remarkable number of baalei teshuva that were standing in front of him. He suddenly decided to speak - he discussed the concept that however powerful the forces for evil can be, the forces for Good must be greater. Based on this he made a remarkable statement: "if one man can kill six million Jews, then it must be that one man can save six million Jews." This is the statement that accompanies the picture of Rav Shach - this is a lesson that we should never forget. God is infinitely more powerful than the most powerful evil men. If we only tap into His power then we can genuinely strive to reach Rav Shach's vision.
1. E.g., his ability to go 40 days and nights without food or drink whilst receiving the Torah at Har Sinai.
2. Vayakhel, 35:21. See Daas Torah, Parshas Vayakhle-Pekudey of Rav Yerucham Levovitz for his discussion of this Ramban.
3. Sichos Mussar, Parshas Emor, Maamer 67.
4. Mishlei, 6:6.
5. Devarim Rabbah 85:2.
7. Kiddushin 30b.