middot humility mesorah humility as flexibility

humility as flexibility

Written by  rebbetzin malkah

art-horseOur Rabbis taught: ‘Sufficient for his need’ [implies] you are commanded to maintain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich; ‘in that which he wants’ [includes] even a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. It was related about Hillel the Elder that he bought for a certain poor man who was of a good family a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. On one occasion he could not find a slave to run before him, so he himself ran before him for three miles. --Talmud, Ketubot 67b

This example of Rabbi Hillel buying a horse, as charity, for a rich man who became poor, and also daily hiring for him a servant to run before the horse seems like a stretch at first. However, it is said regarding this story that the reason for this behavior was for a greater reason than just trying to maintain a particular lifestyle for the previously rich man.  Rabbi Hillel realized that this once-rich man needed these things so his self-esteem would not crumble.

a change in status

While it is difficult, if not impossible at times, to affect change all on one's own for our fellow's hardships, we can be emissaries of humility in cases where people have been humbled.  In the Mussar work Duties of the Heart, there are ten circumstances elucidated that can induce humility.  There are three which clearly relate to our discussion here:

When one meets with misfortune or suffers poverty, and becomes dependent on others after not having been previously dependent on them, he is humbled before them and his spirit is too broken to behave proudly in his sad condition, as it says: "And everyone who is left in your house will come to bow low to him for a bit of money and loaf of bread, and will say, 'Please assign me to one of the priestly duties, that I may eat a bit of bread." (Samuel 1, 2:36) -- Rabbi Bachya ibn Paquda, Duties of the Heart, The Gate of Humility

When another person showers him with favor and shows him much kindness, he humbles himself before him as it says:  "Many court the favor of a generous man, and everyone is the friend of a man who gives." (Proverbs 19:6) --ibid

One who is in debt to his fellow and is unable to pay it will humble himself before him, as it says:  "If you do not have with what to pay, why should he take your bed from under you?" (ibid 22:27) --ibid

Clearly, Rabbi Hillel's actions seem less cryptic and truly amazing if we understand these passages.  What he was trying to achieve was not just merely keeping the man from feeling the sting of his loss to the fullest; he was also showing him that there was something greater than all the riches in the world: humility.  He was allowing the man to feel grateful and humbled through his own humble and concerned behavior.  Here, Rabbi Hillel, the Elder, Sage and great teacher, was running about for the sake of this man and seeing to his needs.  Rabbi Hillel did not mind being flexible in his status in order to help this man - in fact, he felt it was imperative to give this man what he needed in order to bring him to a higher place than riches ever could.  His ability to understand this man, equalize himself in his mind to his fellow's state, shows us something very valuable about the nature of humility.  When displayed properly, it is beautiful and amazing.

do all you can

As Rabbi Hillel sought to protect the man from the sting of crumbled self-esteem, I look around at many people who are broken and crushed for many reasons. Perhaps it is a loss of a job, loss of a home, loss of a loved one. What can be done - is there anything to be learned from Rabbi Hillel's example and from the healing example of Mashiach Yeshua's time on this earth?

I say that there is much that can be learned and done - but it can only start with a humble example.  If we are there, ready to run three miles in front of a horse for our fellow in need, then we are very much on the path to making a difference and having true humility.  When we value the needs and the self-esteem of our fellow with highest regard, than we truly are exemplifying what it means to love our neighbor as ourself.  That's humility.

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