Last week’s Torah portion K’doshim (Leviticus 19) and this week’s Emor (Leviticus 21-25) each, in different ways, addresses the prerequisite attitude necessary for the fulfillment of the tasks assigned to the Kohanim (Priests) in their service before God on behalf of the Israelites. Though our Jewish world is fundamentally different from that led by the Kohanim two thousand years ago, Leviticus and subsequent Jewish literature inform us of the necessary spiritual orientation for us to live “holy” lives.
In last week’s portion we read K’doshim tihiyu ki kadosh Ani YHVH Eloheichem (“You shall be holy because I, Adonai your God, am holy.”).
Rabbi Abraham Heschel explains: “One of the most distinguished words in the Bible is the word kadosh, holy; a word which more than any other is representative of the mystery and majesty of the Divine…[holiness] was at the beginning of creation when there was but one holiness in the world, holiness in time. When at Sinai the word of God was about to be voiced a call for holiness in humankind was proclaimed: ‘Thou shalt be unto me a holy people.’”
The question begs for an answer - what do we need to know about living lives based in holiness? Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev offered that we begin with humility and from there everything else flows. It is written in Proverbs 22:4: Ekev anavah yirat Adonai osher v’chavod v’chayim – “The reward of humility is yirat Adonai (i.e. “Fear/reverence/awe of the Lord even more than the attainment of riches, honor and life itself.”).
Rabbi Akavya ben Mahalalel famously taught along these same lines far earlier (1st century BCE) that our relationship with the Divine is dependent upon three things: “Know from whence you came, where you are going, and before Whom you are bound to give account and reckoning. ‘From whence you came’ – from a putrid drop; ‘where you are going’ - to a place of dust, worm and maggot; and ‘before Whom you are to give account and reckoning’ – before the King of kings, the Holy One, Praised be God.” (Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 3:1)
The crass formulation is deliberate. Humility begins in our base recognition of the yawning chasm between our lowly creatureliness and God’s exalted Divinity. Levi Yitzhak reminds us that so often we humans, when striving to evaluate ourselves and be self-critical, are tempted to look at our achievements first. Rather, he said, it should be the opposite because though we may feel rightly proud of our accomplishments pride is the greatest threat to holiness. If our self-esteem is lifted because of our achievements, it isn’t really self-esteem that is enhanced, it is ego-enhancement.
The Chassidic tradition urges us to suppress our egos at all times in acts of bitul hayesh (lit. “denial of ‘isness’”) and to strive for yihud, becoming one with God and losing ourselves in the Divine Self because only in this way are our souls able to experience true spiritual uplift. Everything else is false. Pride, ego, self-satisfaction might afford us a temporary good feeling, but such sensation is always short-lived and illusory in the face of the greater Divine reality.
According to the Tanya (18th century), a tzadik gamur (“a completely righteous soul”) is in essence the most humble of souls. The tzadik is aware that there are two levels of yirat Adonai (“fear of God”). One is yirat ha-onesh, fear of punishment, and the other, the higher one, is yirat ha-ro-m’mut (“the awe of the overwhelming superiority of the Creator.”).
Moses was the latter, and the mystical literature explains that he was so because more than any other human being he was able to concentrate on the ain sof (the infinite God). He became what is called in Torah an ish Elohim (“a Godly man” - Deuteronomy 33:1), and he was known as ish anav m’od mi kol ha-adam al p’nei ha-adamah (“the most humble human being ever to walk upon the face of the earth!” Numbers 12:3).
One concluding thought about the tzadik and the effect of his/her achieving the quality of humility - such a person on Yom Kippur is afraid not of God’s punishing wrath for sins committed during the year, but rather of God’s loving-mercy, because the tzadik understands that if God judged him with rachamim (“compassion”) that is a sure sign that he had failed his Divine parent. The very last thing the tzadik wishes is to fail in service to God.
That is humility – that is love – that is selflessness – that is the nullification of ego and the submission of pride – and the degree to which we grow in true humility is the measure of the elevation of our souls.