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LAY LOW

by Daniel Lasar    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Our sages teach in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:13), "He who seeks renown loses his reputation." This theme is echoed in this week’s Torah portion: "And G-d made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night" (Genesis 1:16).

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Our sages teach in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers 1:13), "He who seeks renown loses his reputation." This theme is echoed in this week’s Torah portion: "And G-d made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night" (Genesis 1:16). Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, explains that originally, the sun and moon were equal in size and power, thus the description, "the two great lights." However, the moon complained to G-d that two rulers cannot wear the same crown. Because the moon was not content with sharing the stage, Hashem took away its light and diminished its size.

At first glance, one may think that humility is a character trait that is easy to acquire, and that great people necessarily possess it. The Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 20b) corrects this misconception with an illuminating event. One day, a rabbi was returning home after studying much Torah. He was feeling very proud of himself and pleased at his great accomplishments in learning. He chanced upon a lowly individual (some say this was Elijah the prophet in disguise), who greeted him. The rabbi responded, "Empty one. How ugly [are you]. Are there people as ugly as you from where you come?" The peasant replied, "Why don’t you ask the Craftsman who made me?" Realizing his impropriety, the rabbi proceeded to beg the man for forgiveness, which was ultimately granted. After this incident, the rabbi said, "A man should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar" in his relations with other people. Therefore, the pen used for writing Torah scrolls, tefillin, and mezuzot, is derived from the reed.

This was not your everyday Joe Shmoe who erred, rather it was a Torah genius; and we see how even he failed to act correctly. We are not immune to this character defect. Everything we have is a blessing from G-d. We should take heed not to show it off, especially toward those less fortunate than we are. Often this just engenders jealousy and ill will. Too often we strut, flaunt, and ostentate such is not the Torah way.

The Talmud (Tractate Ta’anit 7a) points out that Torah is compared to water in the sense that just as water flees the high ground and collects in the lower, so too is Torah found in those who are humble. Indeed, the Maharal of Prague, a leading Torah scholar of the 16th century, indicates that a prerequisite for Torah study is humility. Moses, the Jewish people’s representative to bring Torah to Mankind, was the most humble person who ever lived (see Numbers 12:3). When recruited by G-d to lead the people out of Egypt, Moses said, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?" (Exodus 3:11). Moreover, it is not mere coincidence that the Torah was given specifically at Mt. Sinai, which was chosen because it was small and did not, according to the Midrash, engage in P.R. to be designated the mountain for this momentous occasion (see Bamidbar Rabbah 13:3).

Thus, it is certainly apropos to renew our cycle of Torah readings by stressing the Torah’s emphasis on humility. We, the Jewish people, can learn a lot from the moon’s treatment. Like that luminary, we have been removed from our prior glory because of our failings. Humility is a starting block on the road to character development. The individual must realize that he does not know everything. The world does not revolve around him (which is maybe the attitude the moon had!). What does Hashem ask of you? "Only the performance of justice, the love of kindness, and walking humbly with your G-d" (Micah 6:8).

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Daniel Lasar writes from Washington, DC.

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