Criticizing Pride and Praising Humility

At the start of this week’s parsha we read, “Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none defile himself for a soul among his people” (Vayikra 21:1). As Rashi points out, our Sages (Yebamot 114a) interpreted this verse to mean the following: “Say…and say – to admonish gedolim [‘adults’] regarding haketanim [‘the minors’].” Hence the text is here warning adults to watch over minors so they are not rendered impure through an intermediary.

As for myself, I think that this verse is addressed to Torah sages: “To admonish gedolim [‘great men’] regarding haketanim [‘the small’]” – that the wise man should not act contemptuously, nor should he exploit the Torah (G-d forbid) for his own ends (Pirkei Avoth 4:5). Instead, he should consider himself small and act humbly and modestly. “Let none defile himself for a soul among his people” is a Torah command! It means that if we fail to act with humility, then our entire Torah will be diverted from its goal, and only our outer shell will benefit and become prominent. In fact the Torah confers sanctity to man and draws him closer to G-d, but only if he remains humble and self-effacing. The Mishnah takes this approach by stating, “Rabbi Levitas, man of Yavneh, said: ‘Be very, very humble, for the expectation of mortal man is but worms’ ” (Pirkei Avoth 4:4).

Our objective in this world is to fight the evil inclination and build our character by constantly learning Torah, observing mitzvot, and doing good deeds. If we stop learning Torah or doing good deeds, our character may crumble and we will have to start building it again.

Such is the meaning of the aforementioned Mishnah: Man of “Yavneh” (a name that evokes the term “to build”) – man must be a fighter and build his character. It is in this regard that the Tanna offers advice to those who are great in Torah: “Be very, very humble.” Just as the Torah repeats the term “say” (“Say…and say”), the Tanna also repeats the adjective “very,” pointing out that if our yearning to build our character is to remain constant, and if it is not to crumble, then we must be humble and consider ourselves small, for “the expectation of mortal man is but worms.” If the inevitable fate of every man is worms, then why should he grow proud over his fellow?

As servants of G-d, we yearn for the World to Come. However if we are crude and filled with pride, character traits that drive man from the world (Pirkei Avot 4:21), we will lose on the one hand what we have gained on the other (Sotah 5a). All our hopes will end in failure, and only worms will profit from our thick and corpulent bodies. In fact a self-satisfied person, even if physically thin, becomes thick and corpulent through pride. Hence the advice that every servant of G-d must retain is the following: Remain humble and modest, for this is the only way to achieve your hopes.

Let us examine just how greatly pride is abhorred by the One through Whose word the world was created. As we know, it is forbidden to sacrifice an animal that possesses a blemish (Vayikra 22:20). Only a perfect animal may be placed upon the altar and serve as an atonement for the person offering it.

I found the following question in the book Avkat Rochel: Why is an animal with a blemish not suitable to offer as a sacrifice? The main thing is for the sinner to regret his deeds and possess a broken heart, as it is written: “The sacrifices G-d desires are a broken spirit. A broken and contrite heart, O G-d, You will not despise” (Tehillim 51:19)! What does it matter if the animal is perfect or not, since the main thing is a broken heart?

I understand this in the following way: It is obvious that whoever has sinned and wants to bring a sacrifice as an atonement must, before all else, sincerely repent and be cleansed of every defect and sin. In fact without repentance, no sacrifice is accepted by G-d, even the most beautiful and full-bodied! Above all else, Hashem wants a suitable and pure heart at the time of a sacrifice, and if the sinner is still infused with a defect on the inside, his sacrifice will not be accepted.

Since our own flesh must be free of every sin and transgression, and the animal comes as an atonement in our stead [everything done to the animal should have been done to us – (Ramban on Vayikra 1:9)], it follows that the animal must also be perfect and without blemish. In reality, this sacrifice is a reflection of the person who offers it: If it possesses a blemish, this indicates that the person offering it also possesses one, meaning that he has not completely repented. That is why such an animal is not suitable to offer as a sacrifice.

In our days, however, since we no longer have the altar upon which to bring our sacrifices, this process has been replaced by prayer, as it is written: “Let our lips substitute for bulls” (Hosea 14:3). In fact our Sages have affirmed that “prayer takes the place of sacrifice” (Berachot 26a; Bamidbar Rabba 18:21). Furthermore, we can replace sacrifice by studying those parts of the Torah that deal with the subject, as it is said: “Whosoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah is as though he were sacrificing a burnt-offering, a meal-offering, a sin-offering, and a guilt-offering” (Menachot 110a).

Therefore before devoting ourselves to Torah, prayer, and learning about the sacrifices, we must ensure that we are beyond reproach and without sin. In the opposite case, our prayers and Torah learning will not be acceptable to G-d. There exists no greater sin than pride and the pursuit of honor. In fact how can a self-satisfied person stand in synagogue or the Beit HaMidrash and study the Torah passages dealing with sacrifices, while his entire character is deficient? Moreover, Hashem has said in regards to such a person: “I and he cannot both dwell in the world” (Sotah 5a). Such a person is therefore an insult and offense to the One by Whose word the world came into existence.

This is why we must pay great attention to acting humbly and modestly. This is the meaning of “to admonish great men regarding the small” – we must always act with humility, submission, and self-effacement, learning Torah without any ulterior motives. Our prayers will then be accepted, and our soul will light our path in this world and in the World to Come. Amen.


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