Dust and Ashes
Chapter 4, Mishna 4
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said: Be extremely lowly of spirit, for the end
of man is worms."
This week's mishna advises us to be humble, "lowly of spirit." We should not
be excessively proud of ourselves or our talents. We certainly must not
identify too strongly with that little bit of flesh into which G-d breathed
our souls, "for the end of man is worms."
Our mishna's language strikes us. Be extremely lowly ("me'od me'od" ("very
very") in Hebrew). R. Levitas does not mince his words. Go to an extreme;
treat yourself like dirt. Consider yourself and your body as the rotting
carcass it will one day become.
And this should strike us. Judaism (in spite of a perhaps fundamentalist
image) is not a religion of extremes. It does not preach poverty, celibacy
or self-flagellation. It even instructs us (from a theological standpoint)
to care for our health. Thus, we would expect the Torah to foster a more
balanced attitude towards our physical halves and our self images. Shouldn't
we see ourselves as important and potentially great individuals? Aren't our
bodies worthy and divinely-constructed tools to be used in the service of
G-d? Won't such crushing self-denigration demean us and sap us of our
self-confidence? Should we really view ourselves as nothing more than
eventual food for worms?
To explain, I would like to back up a bit. Let us first better define the
arrogance our mishna decries. We will then be able to distinguish between
true, healthy humility and a crushing, debilitating sense of worthlessness.
The Sages view arrogance as virtually the antithesis of everything Jewish.
The Talmud writes that a person who is conceited is as one who commits
idolatry, and that G-d says to such a person: "He and I cannot dwell
together in the world" (Sotah 4b-5a). The implication is that one who is
vain -- who is full of himself -- has left no room for G-d. He commits
idolatry in that he worships himself and his own qualities -- failing, of
course, to realize that it was G-d who blessed him with his talents to begin
Further, such a person is guilty of "stealing" from G-d, priding himself for
qualities which are truly not his own. As my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu) often points out, any skills or natural aptitudes which
were basically granted to us at birth cannot truly be considered "ours". We
did nothing to earn them; they are direct gifts from G-d -- and ultimately
His possessions. Our own small part in them is only in realizing our
potential, the degree to which we humbly make good the trust G-d has
invested in us.
Maimonides (Mishne Torah Hil' De'os 1:4
http://www.torah.org/learning/mlife/ch1law3-4a.html), while discussing
proper character traits, states that ordinarily the golden middle is our
best approach to life. One should not be too lustful or too ascetic, too
cheap or too extravagant, too sullen or too frivolous. Nevertheless, there
are two exceptions to this golden rule -- one of them being humility (ibid.,
2:3 http://www.torah.org/learning/mlife/ch2law3a.html). We must go to the
extreme in self-effacement and the avoidance of ego.
And the reason for this is that arrogance is not just a matter of a single
bad trait. The more a person is the center of his own world the less likely
he will be capable of forging a relationship with G-d. To do so requires
that we give up a little of ourselves. If we recognize the G-d who entrusted
us with our abilities, we can begin to repay that G-d and make good His
trust. The arrogant person, however, focuses on himself alone. He has robbed
G-d, so to speak, of the talents he was blessed with. He thus lacks the most
fundamental component for building a relationship with G-d. In fact, the
good deeds he does perform may be doing no more than increasing his pride
and haughtiness -- further distancing himself from G-d, rather than bringing
But there is something far more subtle here. Most sins and negative
character traits are easy to spot. Anger, miserliness, rashness, apathy: we
(or at least others) generally know full well when we suffer from such.
Arrogance, however, is a far more cunning animal: it is protean. (Depression
is also an elusive one, but for another discussion...) A great rabbi (I
believe it was R. Moshe Sofer, of 18th-19th century central Europe)) once
remarked that signs of humility may themselves be a form of arrogance. I
think this can best be illustrated with a classic Jewish joke.
The scene was the synagogue shortly before Kol Nidre services on Yom Kippur
eve. The mood was tense, palpably so -- the strong feelings of remorse over
past deeds, anxiousness to get going with the services. The full solemnity
of the day weighed heavily upon the congregation. Suddenly, the rabbi, no
longer able to contain himself, rushes up to the ark and cries out "Ich bin
a gornisht! Ich bin a gornisht!" ("I'm a no one! I'm a no one!" -- that's
Yiddish) and returns to his seat, just a little bit relieved. Shortly after,
the shammash (beadle) takes the rabbi's lead and follows suit. Pretty soon
the leading community members, then the average ones, all file up one at a
time to cry out their own confession.
An itinerant beggar has meanwhile wandered into the synagogue and sat
himself down on the back bench. Rather bewildered by all the commotion, he
figures that this must be the synagogue custom or something, and so he too
drags himself in front of the congregation and does the same. At that point
the rabbi turns to the beadle and says, "Oich mir a gornisht!" (Poorly
translated: "Who does he think he is calling himself a nobody?")
I was never a very good joke teller, and in that spirit I'll do the
unforgivable: I'll *explain* the joke -- because I really want this message
driven home. What was funny about the scene? Because when the rabbi or
somebody "important" humbles himself before G-d he's *doing* something. In
spite of his greatness he's admitting his smallness. And that admission, of
course, makes him even greater. But when someone who *really is* a no one
humbles himself -- well, what good is that? What does he think he's trying
Another important counter example, not as funny but equally tragic, and one
I've observed close up many a time. Say someone keeps to himself and refuses
to receive honors (say during synagogue services). On the outside he might
appear quite humble. But in truth, he's probably doing so as a way of
feeling aloof from the crowd. Subconsciously he is saying: "Nobody knows the
true respect I deserve. I don't want *them* to honor *me*. Better to be in
my own world -- bitter at the lack of recognition I receive, rather than
together in the world of others -- grateful for the good they do for me."
Such a person is in the center of his own little world -- a very
self-centered one -- which leaves little room for others and certainly none
for G-d. (And it requires a heck of a lot of willpower to wrest oneself from
such a selfish little universe.) It matters little how many mitzvos
(commandments) such a person is fulfilling and how much of the Talmud he has
memorized. He is serving no one but himself.
Jeremiah expresses it simply but eloquently: "Thus says the L-rd: Let not
the wise man glory in his wisdom, and let not the strong man glory in his
strength. Let not the rich man glory in his riches. For in this shall he
that glories glory -- understand and know Me... says the L-rd" (9:22-23).
Good deeds in the context of building a relationship with G-d are
invaluable. But used to raise myself up and look down upon others are acts
of pettiness, selfishness, and ultimately of distancing myself from G-d.
Now let us return to our initial question. Arrogance may be all-consuming,
but why must we go to the opposite extreme? Didn't we learn in the past that
G-d willed it that no two people are alike, that every one of us is unique
and can contribute to the world in a way no one else can? Our bodies might
be dust and ashes, but aren't our souls formed of the breath of G-d Himself?
Is such pathetic self-deprecation even healthy, let alone admirable?
I'll answer briefly this week -- this is a theme we will hopefully return to
in the future. But in a word, the answer is that we must distinguish between
humility and its far cousin -- low self esteem. Humility does not mean we
must tell ourselves we are worthless or undeserving. Moses was called
humblest of men (Numbers 12:3) though he most certainly knew he was the
greatest prophet ever and lawgiver of the nation (and he certainly always
found within him the nerve to take sinners head on when the need arose).
Abraham referred to himself as "dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27) though there
is no doubt he knew full well the pivotal role he was playing in world history.
Rather, humility means we see ourselves as full -- even proud -- members of
humankind, possessing all the greatness and uniqueness this entails. Yet we
are not aggrandized by such a notion. We humbly and solemnly accept our
obligation. It was G-d who entrusted us with such talent and potential. We
have much to live up to.
Low self esteem is too a lack of arrogance, but in a very different way. We
are not full of ourselves, but it is because we lack a true recognition of
our uniqueness and potential. One with low self esteem may lack a healthy
awareness of his uniqueness or might be subconsciously denying it -- in
order to shirk the greatness he knows he can live up to. Neither alternative
will help us realize our goal. Only if we recognize our greatness and the
Creator from which it came, can we begin to turn "dust and ashes" into "the
world was created for me" (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5).
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.