The Fourth Chapter of Avot: Protecting Ourselves From Various Kinds of Failure

Arrogance, Modesty, and Humility: Where to Aim

Rambam’s Commentary to Avot takes significantly more time with some Mishnayot than others, indicating that these mattered more to him.  In the fourth chapter, one such lengthy discussion explains R. Levitas of Yavneh saying, “Be very very low of spirit, for the hopes of man are worms.”

Rambam notes that in his introduction to the tractate, he had recommended shaping our characters along the middle path (although he seems here to recommend straying a little bit to the opposite extreme from our natural tendency, so we can be sure we end up in the middle).

The one exception is arrogance (in Mishneh Torah, he adds anger as another exception), an attribute so dangerous, and all of us so prone to it, that the carefully pious make sure to go to the other extreme; instead of striving to be modest, they strive to be lowly of spirit.

Losing Sight of One’s Need for Honor

Rambam tells a story that he says shows us what the Mishnah means by שפל רוח, lowly of spirit. A pious man was asked about his happiest moment and told of having been travelling on a boat, in steerage. A rich man, indifferent to anyone in steerage, relieved himself on this man. The pious man noticed that he felt no anger, only amazement at the other man’s brazenness.  That, Rambam comments, is the essence of שפלות רוח, lowliness of spirit.

Rambam doesn’t elaborate further. He cites verses and Talmudic statements that advocate this kind of attitude and that denigrate arrogance. He also points to Moshe Rabbenu and David haMelech as exemplars of this trait, which shows us that Rambam doesn’t think you cannot be forceful while also being lowly of spirit.  It seems that lowliness of spirit is a function of how we react when mistreated.

Humility, Not Meekness

Many people think that to achieve this trait means allowing others to walk all over us. The counter-examples of Moshe and David show this is a misreading, since they both accomplished a great deal, even that which required some force of personality, and yet maintained the proper spirit.

That’s because we often mistake humility with timidity or docility. But just as a king is obligated to ensure people respect his office while reminding himself that it’s the office being honored, any of us can push for that which needs to happen without it being a violation of our internal humility.

One last small point about Rambam’s view: he seems to think Moshe, too, was שפל רוח, when the verse refers to him as ענו מאד, exceedingly humble.  Since R. Levitas speaks of being exceedingly lowly of spirit, we could have imagined that there is a difference, that Moshe in fact did not go all the way to the extreme R. Levitas recommends.

We don’t need to imagine it, though, because Tiferet Yisrael beat us there.

Modesty and Humility, a Possible Difference

Tiferet Yisrael finds it difficult to imagine that Moshe Rabbenu, with whom Hashem spoke face to face, as it were, and whose throat was the vehicle for Hashem directly addressing the Jewish people, could not know he was special.  He assumes, therefore, that Moshe in fact was modest, as the verse says, where David HaMelech was lowly of spirit.

To him, a modest person recognizes his or her good qualities, but does not expect that to lead others to treat him differently. To be a world-changing figure (insert names here) and yet not expect special treatment, that’s remarkable modesty. That’s Moshe Rabbenu.

Another option is to be so aware of our flaws that we honestly don’t think we’re all that special.  We can know all the good we’ve done, the positive we’ve accomplished, and yet also see how far from perfect we are. Such people don’t accept being treated like everyone else graciously, they don’t see any reason they shouldn’t be treated like anyone else.

In this reading, modest people don’t expect special treatment despite the fact that they are special. Humble people know themselves well enough to see why they aren’t special.

Gatherings for the Sake of Heaven

In the eleventh Mishnah, R. Yochanan haSandlar says that any gathering for the sake of Heaven will last, whereas those not for the sake of Heaven will not.  For Rabbenu Yonah, a gathering for the sake of Heaven is for the purpose of Torah or good deeds. Not for the sake of Heaven is a gathering where people want to over each other, or to become more respected.

Note the shift. While in the first clause, he defines the goal, in the second half he speaks about the agenda of the people involved. Even a gathering ostensibly for Torah and mitzvot might be “not for the sake of Heaven,” if the people involved are doing it for the sake of power or honor.

Tiferet Yisrael suggests that gatherings for mundane purposes can still be “for the sake of Heaven,” and vice versa for those for mitzvah purposes. He doesn’t elaborate, but if we join him with Rabbenu Yonah, we come to realize that gatherings have to have both a good goal and members intent on that goal and not on personal gain.

Part of the challenge in both of these Mishnayot is that life isn’t black and white, so that even our good faith interest in living up to their standards runs into problems. The pursuit of power and prestige (which seems to violate both Mishnayot, and is therefore the easiest example) sometimes seems necessary to achieve legitimate purposes—I certainly know Torah scholars who acted politically in securing their positions, and yet honestly believed this was to advance the cause of Torah.

Nor am I implying they were wrong; I’m just noting that that would not fit the ethos advocated by R. Levitas and R. Yochanan HaSandlar. They would seem to urge us to act forcefully and productively, but not politically or personally. One more example of Avot teaching us how to be a Hasid, someone of extraordinary dedication to service of Hashem.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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