“Vayikra—and he called to Moses, and the Lord spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting. . .”
One single, extra small letter in the traditional text of Vayikra (Lev. 1:1-5:26) teaches us a big lesson in humility. In fact, it’s a letter in the first word of the parasha, the word “vayikra” itself, which is written in the Torah scroll with a final aleph that is smaller than the rest of the letters.
In Parashat Vayakhel, the Israelites finally begin to build the tabernacle after the disastrous detour of the golden calf. The Lord provides detailed instructions for the tabernacle, telling Moses, “Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it” (Ex. 25:9). The Lord also provides the ability to make this elaborate structure, through giving his Spirit to Betzalel, who oversees all the work (Ex. 35:30ff).
Here's a drash on loving-kindness adapted from my book Creation to Completion, which comments on parashat Ki Tisa (Ex. 30:11-34:35).
Parashat Ki Tisa includes Hashem’s revelation of his glory to Moses, the thirteen attributes of God. This self-revelation opens with the words, “Adonai! Adonai! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, full of chesed v’emet—loving-kindness and truth” (Ex. 34:6). Earlier, in the Ten Words, Hashem had declared that he would show chesed to “thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Ex. 20:6). Chesed is an aspect of God’s character, an aspect that gets sorely tested in this parasha, when Israel builds the Golden Calf. But this same story also reveals the possibilities of chesed on a human level through the example of Moses.
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.
And Miriam chanted for them:Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea. (Exodus 15:20–21)
When Miriam leads the women of Israel at the parting of the sea in praising Hashem with song and dance, she is making her second appearance in the Exodus story. In her first scene, Miriam is instrumental in rescuing the baby Moses after his parents are forced to set him adrift on the waters of the Nile. She has the courage to watch over her brother’s journey in his tiny ark, and the chutzpah to approach the daughter of Pharaoh and suggest a plan that saves his life. Miriam’s act of saving Moses is essential to the entire drama that follows, but throughout this scene she’s just called “his sister” or “the girl” (Ex. 2:4, 7–9).
Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight . . .” (Ex. 3:3).
All of the middot are practical, and order might contend to be the most practical of all. It entails things like putting the car keys back on their hook as soon as you walk in the door, setting your alarm so you get up early enough the next morning, and keeping your desk tidy to eliminate distractions. Like all the middot, however, order must be practiced in balance. Order out of balance can become petty and compulsive, but there’s an even bigger issue of balance, which appears in Parashat Shemot (Ex. 1:1–6:1).
I’d hate to cite one of our patriarchs as a bad example, but at first glance our father Yaakov doesn’t seem to express gratitude when Yosef presents him to Pharaoh. The king asks, “How many are the years of your life?” and Yaakov answers, “The years of my sojourn are one hundred and thirty. Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Gen. 47:8–9). Gratitude is hikarat ha-tov, recognizing the good, but Yaakov seems to focus on the bad instead.
When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them . . . (Gen. 42:7).
Of all the themes that run through the story of Joseph and his brothers, one we might overlook is Joseph’s patience. I’m not thinking of the tremendous patience he needed to get through twenty years of slavery, imprisonment, and estrangement without losing hope in God, but of the patience that brought him through what might have been even tougher—the testing of his brothers when they came down to Egypt to buy food.
For this round of middot, I intend to stay in the vicinity of the weekly parasha. We’re currently at the beginning of the story of Joseph, so let’s see what it might have to teach us regarding the middah of humility.
Joseph’s story turns on three pairs of dreams. In the first pair, Joseph sees himself symbolically as dominant over his brothers, and he foolishly tells them about it. Commentator Nahum Sarna says, “The predictive aspect of dreams was universally assumed in the ancient world, and this was reason enough for the brothers to take Joseph seriously.” Dreams are potent, but Joseph handles them carelessly, fueling his brothers’ resentment and earning a rebuke from Jacob his father, who generally appears to favor Joseph and not rebuke him for anything. The brothers decide to get rid of their obnoxious brother and sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph ends up in an Egyptian prison where, after years of bondage, he accurately interprets the dreams of two fellow inmates. One, the royal cupbearer, will be released, and the other, the royal baker, will be executed. Again, Joseph talks about dreams with little thought to the impact of his words. He tells the baker he’s about to die, without so much as a “Sorry to have to tell you this.” Joseph even employs a play on words, telling the cupbearer that Pharaoh will “lift his head” to restore him and the baker that Pharaoh will “lift his head” off to execute him. Oh well . . .
Finally, Pharaoh has a pair of dreams that no one can interpret until the cupbearer remembers Joseph. He tells Pharaoh about him and Joseph is summoned to interpret the dreams, which he does convincingly, wrapping it up with, “The doubling of Pharaoh's dream means that the thing is fixed by God, and God will shortly bring it about” (Gen. 41:32). Then he adds some words of his own: “Now therefore let Pharaoh select a discerning and wise man, and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh proceed to appoint overseers over the land and take one-fifth of the produce of the land . . . so that the land may not perish through the famine” (Gen. 41:33–36). As a result, Joseph is put in charge of the whole vast operation to save Egypt from the predicted famine.
In the foreground of the story, its big theme begins to move ahead, the restoration of the twelve sons of Israel. But in the background we can discern a lesson about humility.
Joseph doesn’t just interpret Pharaoh’s dream, but now he takes responsibility for his interpretation and suggests a response. One could say that Joseph is just trying to get out of prison, and maybe even get himself a paying job (which you can hardly blame him for), but perhaps there’s more to it. In the past, Joseph didn’t even seem to be aware of the impact his words might have, as he talked about the various dreams. But now he’s learned to pause and consider the impact of his words, which is an integral part of humility. Sarna points out that “Joseph is extremely tactful and cautious. . . . [His] repeated emphasis on ‘Pharaoh’ . . . accords with the ancient Egyptian concept of government, which stressed the ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent nature of the king.” When Joseph advises the king to “proceed to appoint overseers,” he “deliberately uses the same verbal stem [asah] he used three times before in connection with the impending divine action (vv. 25, 28, 32), as though to imply that Pharaoh is the human counterpart of God.”
Now, you might think this sort of language is basic protocol when you’re talking with Pharaoh, but Joseph has shown himself to be oblivious to basic protocol in the past, both with his older, and higher ranking, brothers and with his two high-ranking fellow prisoners. Now, I believe, he’s learned something about humility that might be helpful to us as well. Humility is the ability to step back and see the impact of your potential words, to consider them, not just from your perspective, but from the other person’s perspective. Humility is willing to modify, to be careful, to hand-carry our words for the sake of the other. Humility overcomes the belief that my perspective, and my way of expressing it, is always just fine, and others will have to learn to like it. Humility replaces such self-delusion with sensitivity, and makes the effort to meet the needs of the other, instead of just meeting the need to express myself.
You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people. -- Lev 19:16
A talebearer reveals secrets, "But he who is of a faithful spirit conceals a matter" (Prov 11:13)
Have you ever been in on a conversation that started like this: “Can you keep a secret? I’m really not supposed to talk about this, but . . .” or “So-and-so made me promise not to tell anyone about this, but . . .”? This opening line is usually followed by an explanation of why it’s OK to not keep the secret, but to share the forbidden information with you, often in flattering terms. But don’t yield to flattery; the right response to this opening line is, “Wait, don’t tell me! If it’s supposed to be a secret I don’t want to know it.”
The connection between trustworthiness and honesty would appear to be fairly simple. An individual who has regularly demonstrated honesty is usually trustworthy. However, this is not universally the case as I have seen brutally honest people say nasty things to people they love.