The Torah section of Shmini tells us of the sad incident involving the death of Aaron’s two prestigious sons, Nadav and Avihu. Despite their greatness, the two overstepped their bounds and were consumed by a heavenly fire. We read (Vayikra 10:1-3): “And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire-pan and they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before G-d an alien fire that He had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d. And Moses said to Aaron, ‘Of this did G-d speak, saying, “I will be sanctified through those who are close to Me, and I will be honored before the entire people,”’ and Aaron remained silent.” The two prestigious sons of Aaron who became consumed by their own talents and abilities were in the end consumed by the power of G-d Himself.
In commenting on the last verse, the great medieval Biblical exegete and Talmudic master known as Rashi cites our Sages’ description of Moses’ conversation with Aaron upon this incident (Torat Kohanim 1:36; Vayikra Rabbah 12:2): “Aaron, my brother, I knew that the House [Mishkan] would become sanctified through those intimate with G-d, but I was under the impression [that it would happen] either through me or through you. Now I see that they are greater than I and you.” This appears at first glance a rather ironic statement coming from someone whom G-d Himself describes as “exceedingly humble more than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3)!
A similarly ironic statement is expressed by one of our greatest Sages, the Amora R. Yosef (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 49b) with regard to the Sages’ reporting that humility disappeared with the death of R. Yehuda HaNasi, claiming that this assertion should be stricken since he is still alive. How could someone of such stature as the famous Amora R. Yosef claim to be humble and make such a declaration?
A well known more contemporary ironic example pertaining to humility is that of R. Yechezkel Abramsky, the Av Beit Din in London from 1934 to 1951, a close student of the illustrious R. Chaim Brisker, and author of the monumental Chazon Yechezkel on Tosefta. Once R. Abramsky was sued by a shochet (ritual slaughterer) who claimed his services had been unfairly terminated. As R. Abramsky began his testimony, his attorney asked him to state his name and position. The attorney then asked, “Is it true that you are the greatest halachic authority in the United Kingdom?” R. Abramsky responded, “Yes. That is true.” At that point the judge interrupted and inquired, “Rabbi Abramsky, do your laws and ethics not teach you to be humble? Would you not say that this is somewhat haughty on your part?” R. Abramsky answered, “Yes, we are taught to be humble. But I am under oath.”
Another ironic example can be found in the works of the great latter day halachic decisor and Torah giant, R. Moshe Feinstein, a man also known for his tremendous humility. In defending one of his halachic decisions, he writes (Igrot Moshe, Even Ha’Ezer, Volume II, Responsa 11): “The truth is that nothing in my writings or rulings could, G-d forbid, desecrate the purity and holiness of the Jewish people, as the one who attacked the decision suggested, because [my decisions and writings] are based on Torah truths, as taught by our masters, the rishonim. The position [on the other hand] that you espoused is based on your knowledge of ideas foreign to the Torah, which can influence even the wisest individuals and cause them to misinterpret the Torah and decide that something is prohibited when it is truly permitted, or vice versa. … I, thank G-d, am not influenced by such ideas. All my knowledge comes from the Torah, and that is all that influences me, with no foreign influences mixed in whatsoever.” Is such a statement in consonance with humility?
An explanation for such statements as the aforementioned can be found in the discussion on the topic by R. Yehuda Leib Chasman (1869-1935), the greatly respected mashgiach of Yeshivat Telz and Yeshivat Chevron, in his work Or Yahel (part II), in which he addresses the irony in statements such as the aforementioned.
R. Chasman suggests that we look at a mover who manages to carry tremendous weights on his back for significant distances. Does such a mover see any of the materials that he is trudging with as his own? Logically not. Does that negate the fact that he is managing to exert remarkable energy and strength in transporting such heavy loads? No. Similarly, if one does not recognize his capabilities and talents, it is not a sign of humility but rather stupidity. What then is humility? It is an expression of recognition that that which he is capable of and that which he is able to shoulder is not his own creation but a gift bestowed upon him from the one and only Creator and Master of the Universe. And the more that one recognizes this, the greater is his humility. Consequently, one can speak of even his own talents and capabilities and recognize correctly how advanced they may be, even one’s own capability of humility, and yet maintain his humility in knowing that in essence all his capabilities are not all his own doing but essentially a present from G-d. We are expected to aspire to humility, not stupidity.
May we all properly recognize our talents and capabilities and use them, not in the form of self-aggrandizement, but, in the manner best to accomplish that which G-d our Creator expects from us, to foster greater growth as an individual and in the community at large. May we not be blind to our abilities and may we not be blind to Whom we owe our thanks and appreciation for those abilities.