In explaining Moshe's character - such that he would not react at all to his
sister Miriam's subtle slight, and, therefore, G-d Himself needed to come to
Moshe's defense - the Torah testifies, "Now the man Moshe was exceedingly
humble, more than any person on the face of the earth." (Bamidbar/Numbers
12:3) But this character trait is not reserved exclusively for a person of
Moshe's spiritual fortitude. Pirkei Avos/The Ethics of our Fathers (4:4)
encourages everyone, in the name of Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh, "Be exceedingly
humble in spirit, for the anticipated end of mortal man is worms." What is
the relationship between mortality and humility? And why does the simple
pursuit of humility not suffice; why must we be "exceedingly humble"?
The Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan of Radin; 1838-1933;
author of basic works in Jewish law, philosophy and ethics and renowned for
his saintly qualities) elaborates that it is understood that there is no
physical pleasure that can possibly reward the fulfillment of a mitzvah
(Divine commandment). The Talmud explains that one moment in the Afterlife
is more pleasurable than all of the pleasures of this world. Rabbi Eliyahu
Dessler (1891-1954; of London and B'nai Brak; one of the outstanding
personalities and thinkers of the Mussar movement) explains that "all the
pleasures of this world" does not simply refer to the all the pleasure one
individual will experience through his lifetime, or even all the pleasure
EVERYONE in the world will experience during that individual's lifetime.
Rather, concludes Rabbi Dessler, "all the pleasures of this world" means all
of the pleasures experienced by EVERYONE throughout the world THROUGHOUT
HISTORY, from the beginning of time through eternity; all of that pleasure
is less than the enjoyment of one moment of the Afterlife.
But, continues Rabbi Kagan, there is no real basis for comparison because
the "currency" of the World to Come is inherently different than the
pleasures of this world. Just as mitzvos are an accomplishment in the
spiritual realm, fulfilled with the goal of enhancing our loving
relationship with G-d, so too our reward for these mitzvos can only be
spiritual. The ultimate reward for mitzvah is another mitzvah (Pirkei Avos
4:2); that is, one step taken toward strengthening the relationship with the
Divine is rewarded with another opportunity to build that bond. Considering
the eternal joy inherent in a relationship with G-d, any physical pleasure,
even all the riches in the world, pales in comparison.
But there is one pleasure that straddles both realms: honor. While it is
just as temporal - and, therefore, as meaningless - as physical pleasures,
it is indeed a spiritual reward, made of the same currency as that of the
Afterlife. So while many people exhaust their resources of this world to
achieve honor and prestige, it can also be acquired in lieu of the eternal.
For if someone chooses to be rewarded for their mitzvos with honor and
accolades for their great wealth or intellectual contributions, that payment
is exchanged for remuneration in the Divine realm.
Thus, concludes the Chofetz Chaim, the Mishna in Pirkei Avos does not simply
encourage distancing ourselves from tribute, but warns us to maintain great
distance, to be exceedingly humble. Flee from honor as one flees from an
inferno. Heaven forefend that we should discover at the end of our days that
we squandered our eternity of thousands of opportunities for G-d
consciousness for a relatively few fleeting moments of accolade.
How do we accomplish this? We are, after all, people of accomplishment. Are
we to deny that which we have achieved?
We can learn well from Moshe himself. The Torah itself confirms that there
was never another prophet like Moshe (Devarim/Deuteronomy 34:10), yet there
was never anyone as humble as Moshe. How did HE encompass both traits? Notes
Rabbi Kagan, specifically because of Moshe's relationship with the Divine
did he realize and understand how small he truly was in comparison. We, too,
have our own points of reference. In our moments of intellectual honesty, we
appreciate that for all of our successes, we have many areas of weakness and
shortcoming where others stand out. No one excels beyond his peers in all
areas of life. Like Moshe, we will flourish when we are not worried about
surpassing others, but are concerned only with outshining ourselves.