Our Sages teach us in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 4): “Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh says: Be exceedingly low of spirit.” This means that every person must try to excel in humility which is the greatest character trait of all. Even a king of Israel who must act firmly and with sovereignty is commanded by the Torah to likewise act humbly, as the verse states (Devarim 17), “Lest his heart become elevated over his brothers.” The greatest prophet of all time, Moshe Rabbeinu, was praised specifically regarding his humility, as the verse states, “And the man, Moshe, was exceedingly humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth.”
The truth of the matter is that without humility, one can live one’s entire life in error and without the ability to rescue one’s self from the situation one is in, for such a person will never accept the advice of others wiser than him who will guide him along the proper path. Indeed, there are many people who are not very intelligent but view themselves as the wisest people on earth. It is for this reason that they constantly mock the opinions of others and they are completely confident in themselves although the rest of the world observes their crooked and arrogant ways.
We all remember the way Maran zt”l behaved with great humility in spite of his tremendous greatness. Although he was the leader of the generation and recognized his strengths and greatness, he nevertheless did not let this make him haughty. Once, a granddaughter of Maran approached him and requested his blessing for a certain matter. Maran proceeded to bless her. She told him, “Our Sages teach us that when a righteous man decrees something, Hashem fulfills the decree. I request that you decree for this matter to come about!” Maran zt”l immediately answered innocently, “How can I decree if I am not a righteous person?”
This is merely a small glimpse of Maran zt”l’s noble and humble ways. It is indeed his great humility that helped him ascend to the levels he reached and to be loved by both Hashem and the entire Jewish nation alike.
Maran would commonly recount the incident involving Rabbeinu Yehonatan Eibeschitz. Once, shortly after Rabbi Eibeschitz was appointed Chief Rabbi of Altona (Germany) and the surrounding areas, he travelled to Altona and on the way, arrived at a small town nearby on Erev Yom Kippur. The rabbi decided to spend Yom Kippur in this town. On Erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yehonatan took his Machzor and went to the local synagogue to pray Mincha with the congregation. He happened to have been standing next to an older man who was praying in a slight overtone. When he reached the “Al Chet” prayer at the conclusion of the Amida, this man translated every sentence into German and recited this prayer while shedding copious tears. When this man reached the final paragraph of the prayer which reads, “My G-d, before I was formed, I did not deserve to be. I am dust during my lifetime and certainly after my death. I am before you like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation,” he began to cry uncontrollably.
Rabbi Yehonatan was very moved by the truly emotional prayer and after services, he asked the synagogue’s Gabbai if he could seat him next to this man for all of the Yom Kippur prayer services, for this would cause him to concentrate more on his own prayers and recite them with more focus and emotion.
This scene repeated itself during the Arvit and Shacharit prayers of Yom Kippur; the older man prayed fervently and shed many tears in the process. When it came time for Torah reading, the Gabbai called up four people to the Torah and honored the older man with the fifth Aliyah. When the Gabbai went over to the older man to call him up, the older man was extremely insulted that he was not offered the third or fourth Aliyot which are considered more respected than the fifth. The older man looked square at the Gabbai and unleashed his wrath, “You fool! You gave so-and-so the third Aliyah and so-and-so the fourth while both of these people do not reach my ankles in age or wisdom and to me you offer the fifth Aliyah? Who appointed you Gabbai? You would be better off just staying home!”
Rabbi Yehonatan was astounded by what he saw and heard. Was this the same gentleman who had earlier recited, “I am dust during my lifetime”?
After Mussaf prayers, a break was announced before Mincha services. Rabbi Yehonatan took advantage of this opportunity and addressed the older man: “Why did you scream at the Gabbai? What about your exclamations of ‘I am dust during my lifetime’ and ‘I am before you like a vessel filled with shame and humiliation? Indeed, many people recite these words without understanding what they mean but you translated every sentence into German and you cried while reciting this prayer!”
The man replied, “Your honor, I am taken aback by your question. When I stood praying, I was talking to Hashem and relative to Hashem, I am dust and like a vessel filled with shame. However, this is not the case when speaking to this foolish Gabbai who does not even reach my ankles, for he should not have honored me with only the fifth Aliyah!”
This incident depicts a person who has not acquired the supreme character trait of humility and as a result of his great arrogance, he believes that he is also a truly humble person; however, this man possessed neither wisdom nor humility.
One who realizes his shortcomings in the service of Hashem and accepts the advantages of others graciously shall surely acquire the precious quality of humility which shall benefit one in this world as well as the next.