We have just entered the Hebrew month of Sivan. In a few days, we will celebrate Shavuos, the holiday of receiving the Torah. Out of all the nations, why did Hashem choose to give the Torah to the Jewish people? What makes us special?
A passuk in Devarim tells us the answer: “Hashem chose you to be His Am Segulah (treasured nation)… because you are the smallest of all nations.”1 On a simple level, being the smallest nation means we have the smallest population. But the Midrash2 teaches us a deeper meaning: Being the “smallest” refers to our quality of anavah (humility). Hashem chose to give the Torah to the Jewish people because we are humble.
In fact, there are numerous other connections between humility and accepting the Torah: Moshe Rabbeinu was known as the humblest man who ever lived3 and he was chosen to bring down the Torah to the Jewish people. Har Sinai, the mountain upon which we received the Torah, was the lowest of all mountains.4 And finally, Chazal teach us that the Torah can only be acquired by someone who is humble5; indeed, humility is one of the 48 kinynanei Torah (qualities necessary in order to acquire Torah)6.
Why must a person be humble in order to accept the Torah?
The Root of Humility
In order to understand this, we can look at how the SMA”G (Sefer Mitzvos Gedolos)7 describes anavah (humility).
According to the SMA”G, the Torah source for the prohibition against gaivah (haughtiness) is the passuk: “Be careful lest you forget Hashem.”8 What does forgetting Hashem have to do with haughtiness? The SMA”G explains that when Hashem gives us gifts and blessings – a spacious house, a beautiful family, a prestigious job, lots of friends, popularity – we easily take credit for these things ourselves, and forget that they were given to us by Hashem.
Why do I have a prestigious job? Because I’m so smart and creative. Why am I so popular? Because of my outgoing personality. Why did I win the basketball game? Because I’m so athletic. Why did I ace my test? Because I have such a great memory. Why am I a great cook? Because I just have that magic touch. Why do people come to me for advice? Because I have a great intuition and understanding of people.
When we think this way, we are taking credit for the way we were created. Did you create your own brain, good looks, strong muscles, or high IQ? Hashem could have given those strengths to anyone. You are very lucky He chose to give these talents to you, but it doesn’t make you any greater than anyone else. Some people are born with a high IQ, some people are born with good looks, and some people are born with an outgoing personality. You did not earn your own natural gifts and talents, so you can’t take credit for having them. Being naturally intelligent or naturally good-looking does not make you any greater than anyone else. Gaivah (haughtiness) comes when a person forgets that his strengths, gifts, and talents were given to him by Hashem.
A Sense of Responsibility
Having humility means recognizing that all your great qualities and strengths were given to you by Hashem. Hashem could have given the good looks and brains to anyone. But He chose to give them to YOU! And together with that knowledge comes responsibility.
Imagine a king who wants to buy a certain precious jewel. He chooses one of his servants and gives him $100,000 so he can go to a far-off island, buy the jewel, and bring it back to the king. Can you imagine if, upon receiving the money, the servant would start jumping up and down, filled with glee, screaming: “Wow, look at me!! I’M RICH!!!!! I’m so great!!!! I have $100,000!!!”
No, this would be ridiculous. The servant does not own the $100,000. The money belongs to the king. The king has merely entrusted his servant with the money temporarily, so that he can fulfill his mission of buying the jewel, and bringing it back to the king. Holding onto the money does not make the servant any greater than he was before. Rather, the servant’s greatness is determined only by how much he fulfills the king’s mission.
It’s the same thing when Hashem gives us strengths and talents. Hashem gives some people a good voice, some people a high IQ, some people creativity, and some people lots of energy and physical stamina. We are each like the servant who holds $100,000 in his pocket. Does our good voice, intelligence, creativity, or physical strength make us any greater than anyone else? Not at all. They are all just tools that have been entrusted to us by Hashem, our King, so that we can use them to fulfill each of our unique missions on this earth. Like the servant who was entrusted with $100,000 to buy a jewel, we each need to use our unique talents to “buy” what Hashem wants in this world – mitzvos and maasim tovim.
Did Hashem give you a good voice? Great – go sing in a nursing home to cheer people up! Did Hashem give you a keen business mind? Great – go offer advice to people who are struggling financially, or use your business skills to earn money to support your family. Did Hashem give you lots of energy? Great – use it to babysit or run a camp. Did Hashem give you a fearless personality? Use it to check the community eiruv, which can only be done by someone who is not afraid of heights. Humility means understanding that every gift I have is coming from Hashem and should therefore be used to serve Him.
Understanding this can help us understand how it can be that great leaders like Moshe Rabbeinu were so humble. Didn’t Moshe realize his greatness? How was Moshe not full of pride for being the leader of the entire Jewish people?
The answer is that Moshe Rabbeinu – and all great people – indeed recognize their gifts, but they feel the deep sense of responsibility to use those gifts for Hashem. They are like the loyal servant entrusted with $100,000 who comes back to the king proudly carrying the jewel. He is proud to have fulfilled the king’s mission but does not fall into the illusion of thinking that the money belonged to him. Great leaders feel humbled by the knowledge that they were given special talents and feel deeply responsible to use those gifts to accomplish whatever Hashem wants them to achieve.
Perhaps through this we can understand why Hashem gave the Torah to the Jewish people because we are the humblest of all nations.
Chazal teach us that the purpose of creation is that the entire world should recognize Hashem as our Creator. Torah and mitzvos are our tools for accomplishing this purpose. For example, when we make a brachah on food, we are declaring our recognition that Hashem created this food. When we rest on Shabbos, we are demonstrating our recognition that Hashem created the world.
Hashem had to give the Torah to a nation that could become His faithful partner in bringing this purpose to fruition. A nation that would help the whole world recognize Hashem. But as we just explained, a haughty person does exactly the opposite – he forgets about Hashem! He forgets that all of his strengths, talents, and gifts were given to him by Hashem, and instead he takes credit for his own accomplishments and becomes puffed up with pride.
When Hashem saw that the Jewish people have the quality of humility, He chose to forge a everlasting relationship with us by giving us the Torah. He knew that we would be faithful messengers to help the whole world come to recognize Hashem. And He chose Moshe Rabbeinu – the humblest of all men – to teach us the Torah, because only a humble person will have clear enough vision to be able to see Hashem’s hand in his life and attribute his strengths and talents to Hashem.
This week, let’s establish the foundation of our humility by recognizing that all our strengths and successes were given to us from Hashem, and should therefore be used for fulfilling Hashem’s Will.
Sources:  Devarim 7:6-7;  Rashi, ibid.;  Bamidbar 12:3;  Sotah 4b;  Eiruvin 54a;  Pirkei Avos 6:6;  Lo Taaseh #64 as quoted in Sifsei Chaim Middos V’Avodas Hashem, Vol 1. pg. 115;  Devarim 8:11
Once a day, notice one of your strengths, skills, talents, or gifts – and say out loud how you can use it for serving Hashem.
- Hashem gave me an outgoing personality which I can use to be friendly and make other people smile.
- Hashem gave me intelligence so that I can learn Torah.
- Hashem gave me a good memory so that I can remember which brachah to say on each type of food.
- Hashem gave me strength and energy so that I can take care of my children / clean up my house / cook for Shabbos.
- Hashem gave me a good voice so I can sing songs to inspire myself and other people.
- Who was known as the most humble person who ever lived? (See Bamidbar 12:3)
- What phrase is used to describe a haughty person in Mishlei 16:5?
- Pirkei Avos 6:5 says there are many ways to acquire Torah, and humility is one of them. How many ways are there in total?
- Fill in the blanks: The Gemara (Shabbos 30b) says that a person should always be humble like _____ and not a kapdan (overly-exacting or demanding person) like _____?
- Which 2 adjectives does the Gemara (Brachos 6b) use to describe someone who consistently davens in the same place?
- It says in Yirmiyahu Chapter 9: “A person should not take pride in ____, ____, or ____; rather he can take pride in ____.”
- Which words in the Shabbos zemer “Kah Ribon Olam” mean that Hashem lowers the haughty and straightens those who are bent over?
- The Gemara (Eiruvin 13a) says that when there is a machlokes (difference of opinion) between Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, we follow whatever Beis Hillel said. Why?
Questions to Ponder
- Chazal teach us that a person must be humble in order to learn Torah. How many reasons can you think of to explain why this is so?
- The Gemara (Sotah 4b) says that if a person is haughty, it’s as if he is serving idols. Do you think that sounds a bit harsh? What do being haughty and serving idols have in common?
- Hashem says that He cannot “live” (so-to-speak) in the same world as someone who is haughty. What does that mean? Why doesn’t Hashem just say He “doesn’t like it” when people are haughty?
- The Sefer Chassidim says that a humble person’s true character can be seen when he is challenged with an anger-provoking situation. Why might a humble person have an easier time staying calm?