The nourishing power of humility


11 AV 5780/July , 2020

Parashat Vaetchanan is the first of three magnificent speeches Moshe makes to the generation of the wilderness, dor hamidbar. He has a daunting educational task. How will this younger generation feel inspired by the vision and purpose of the Jewish people? How will they come to understand what God expects of them? How will they know which battles to fight, and how to treat the stranger, the immigrant, and minorities who will live with them in Eretz Canaan?

Originally, the generation of Egypt, dor mitzrayim, was to have entered the promised land. They had experienced life as a minority. They felt first gratitude towards the Egyptians, and then trauma of fear, hatred and abuse. God understood that a people who could remember what it was like to be a minority culture, who experienced both gratitude and vulnerability, could then build a society in which their compassion and sense of justice would temper the intoxicating influence of power. 

But that was not to be. The Torah tells the poignant story of an enslaved people and their struggle to gain the self-confidence to build and shape a society of their own. The majority culture of Egypt both hated the Jews and needed them. They dehumanized them, and then kept their bodies for their own purposes. Generations of such oppression shaped a slave mentality such that when Benei Yisrael walked the open-ended path towards freedom, they yearned to return to Egypt instead of shoulder responsibility for themselves. They complained and even rebelled against Moshe. To this generation, Egypt became, perversely, their Garden of Eden, “k’gan hashem, k’eretz mitzrayim.” (Bereshit 13:10)

So Moshe addresses the younger generation, people who could not remember Egypt, or Mt. Sinai, or the construction of the Mishkan, or the appointment of Aharon and the priests, or the rebellion of Korach, or the negative, demoralizing report of the scouts. They only know endless wandering with no historical memory. They are aimless, uninspired, exhausted, and apathetic. They did not stand at the mountain “as one person with one heart,” prepared to fulfill a divine dream.

Moshe speaks to them about loyalty. In order to be a member of the Jewish people, in order to take life’s journey as a Jew, in order to enter and fight the battles required to settle Eretz Canaan, one is required to demonstrate loyalty to God. The leitmotif throughout the parasha is the phrase, Shema Yisrael: listen, comprehend, obey God’s teachings. Moshe transports the people back to Mt. Sinai through a moment of sacred, biblio-drama. He transmits the 10 commandments anew. Strikingly, the explanation for Shabbat, unlike the original text describing Shabbat as a reenactment of the creation of the universe, is God’s desire to protect people from dehumanizing themselves by becoming slaves to their work: Remember, you were slaves in the land of Egypt….Moshe also describes the confrontations with other nations. These wars were less about territory, however, and more about idolatry. Loyalty to God’s sacred covenant entails waging war against idolatry. The prohibition against idolatry appears throughout the parasha, in each of the seven aliyot. 

Idolatry is a mind-set, with implications for how humanity builds society, relates to each other, and views the natural world we inhabit. To explore this mind-set, I would like to compare two sections from the parasha, and then offer an explanation based on the Chasidic commentary of the Mei HaShiloach, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, (1801-1854). When Moshe describes the future incursion into the Land of Canaan, he describes the following reality:

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that He swore to your fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov…[you will find] great and flourishing cities that you did not build, houses full of all good things that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. When you eat your fill, take heed that you do not forget the LORD who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. Revere only the LORD your God and worship Hashem alone, and swear only by God’s name. Do not follow other gods, any gods of the peoples about you….(Devarim 6:10-14)

Moshe describes Benei Yisrael occupying houses built and formerly inhabited by the pagan nations who preceded them. He describes Benei Yisrael eating their food, drinking their water, and finding vineyards and groves already planted and thriving. Immediately following this passage is yet again another admonition against idolatry. Moshe said:

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the LORD set His heart on you and chose you—indeed, you are the smallest of peoples; but it was because the LORD favored you and kept the oath God made to your fathers that the LORD freed you with a mighty hand and rescued you from the house of bondage, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. Know, therefore, that only the LORD your God is God, the steadfast God who keeps God’s covenant faithfully to the thousandth generation of those who love God and keep God’s commandments…However, God will destroy immediately those who turn their back on the covenant….. (Devarim 7:7-10)

What does conquering a land and appropriating houses, food, water systems, indeed the entire infrastructure of a functioning society, have to do with idolatry? The Mei HaShiloach also wondered about the connection between the acquisition of material blessings, the feeling of ownership, the privileges of a majority culture, and idolatry. He wrote:

“God chose you because you are the smallest amongst the nations….”This means the following. The Holy One said to the Jewish people: “I love you because you humble yourselves before Me precisely when I shower you with blessings/privileges. I blessed Avraham with power and greatness, and he responded, “I am but dust.” Moshe and Aharon said to Me, “Who are we [to take on this task….?] Pagans do not have this mind set. For example, Nebuchadnezer, King of Babylonia, said, “I will build a tower up to the clouds.” Avraham and Moshe’s humility did not belie their self-understanding. Avraham certainly knew his position, and Moshe understood his greatness as a prophet. King Solomon expressed this quality of character when he said, “A rich man is clever in his own eyes, but a perceptive poor man can see through him.” (Mishle 28:11) This captures the fundamental nature of paganism. A pagan is a person who believes that everything he has achieved in the world he possesses as a result of his own potential and capability. They see themselves as the source of their success. The Jewish people, however, are regarded as a meek people, because with humility they realize that the fullness of the world, all of reality, really belongs to the Creator. The humble recognize this by noting that the blessings of one nation, another nation lacks, whereas what the first lacks, the second possesses….Therefore, [since the Jewish people receive blessings with humility], God desired them in full measure…. (Mei HaShiloach on Devarim 7)

The Mei HaShiloach read the Torah both literally and figuratively at the same time. The Torah’s words are simultaneously “physical” and spiritual. They describe a narrative sequence of events that construct a historical framework, while simultaneously transmitting a sacred history, a history of the human soul’s yearning for perfection, completion, and reunification with its divine source. The conquest here is not the conquest of land. It is the conquest for the neshama of the people. Moshe is teaching this young generation how to enter a promised land with homes, food, water and roads; clothing, resources, flocks, hills and sky. The people must enter that place and possess it with awe and not arrogance. The purpose of our society, Moshe is teaching, is to become a majority culture that will be humbled by its own success. Every nation has within themselves a predisposition towards idolatry and arrogance, or a humbling awareness as a creature of a common, shared Creator with responsibility for each other and the world. The war against idolatry is an interior battle. Israel has the seven Canaanite nations inside of us. It is Israel’s task to enter the land with humility, and to ensure that their humility deepens with every achievement, with every accomplishment, with every triumph. The battle is for the soul of the people, as the arrogance that emerges with power fragments and slowly destroys the foundation of society. 

We need to read these words today more than ever. America is infected by arrogance and the assumption that people deserve what they have. Contentiousness, violence, and acrimony have overwhelmed this society, revealing the instability of its foundation. Moshe, and the Mei HaShiloach are admonishing us: unity, empathy, compassion, and the redemption of spirit will come only through humility, respect and awe. Unless this society respects nature, human dignity, and equitable justice, chaos could reign. Humility can emerge when a people struggle against arrogance, and sense with gratitude life’s many blessings. 

About the Author
Rabbi Dov Lerea is currently the Head of Judaic Studies at the Shefa School in NYC. He has served as the Dean and Mashgiach Ruchani at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, as the Director of Kivunim in Jerusalem, as the Dean of Judaic Studies of the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York, and as the Director of Education at Camp Yavneh in Northwood, New Hampshire. Rabbi Dov has semicha from both JTS and YU. He is married and is blessed with sons, daughters-in-law, and wonderful grandchildren. He loves cooking, biking, and trying to fix things by puttering around with tools.
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