Friday, April 24, 2009

Tazria-Metzora 5631 Third Ma'amar

The Torah encourages us to be humble. In this week’s parsha we find that a leper, as part of his atonement, brings the branches of a cedar and a hyssop tree to the priest. The cedar tree is very tall representing haughtiness. The hyssop is low representing humility. Rashi explains that if a person transgressed because of haughtiness he should practice humility. The Sfas Emes asks that since this is a procedure for atonement, why bring the cedar branch which reminds us of the leper’s transgression?

The Sfas Emes explains that there is actually a close connection between arrogance and humbleness. To understand that connection we need to understand what it means to be humble. Does being humble mean denying one’s accomplishments? The Torah tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu was more humble than any other person. Yet, Moshe Rabbeinu, the Arizal teaches, was the repository of knowledge for the entire nation of Israel. He certainly was aware of this! Wouldn’t denying it be akin to a lie? If we must acknowledge our accomplishments for the sake of truth, how then, do we practice humility?

Humility, the Sfas Emes teaches us, is not concerned with denying or acknowledging accomplishments. Rather, humility is concerned with to whom we attribute credit for those achievements. The arrogant claims credit. The humble credits God. Crediting God for our achievements is truth because everything, including our ability to act, comes from Him. In fact, God’s desire is for us to reach a level on which we know that everything comes from Him.

The parameter that we add to the equation is our desire to achieve, to accomplish, to do. But it is impossible for us to know how much of what we accomplish is due to our desire to reach a specific goal and how much is due to God’s hand. Therefore, it behooves us to attribute all of our accomplishments to Him for how can we possibly be proud of something that is not ours?

With this concept we can understand a difficult passage in the morning prayers, מַשְׁפִּיל גֵאִים וּמַגְבִּיהַּ שְׁפָלִים/He humbles the arrogant and lifts the lowly.” The Chiddushei HaRim cites the Rav of Parshischa who asks that this passage seems like a never ending cycle. Does God raise the lowly who now must be humbled and then once humbled lift him up again, etc? This cannot be.

Therefore the Rav of Parshisch explains, and the Sfas Emes elaborates, that a person who knows that everything in his world is from God, realizes his own lowliness but is also raised up by the knowledge that God is active in his life. It is like being connected to God. This person is truly on a high level. This is the meaning of, “מַגְבִּיהַּ שְׁפָלִים/He lifts the lowly.” The lowly person remains lowly in his eyes because he knows that he cannot take credit for his accomplishments. However, he is raised up because he also knows that God has helped him. We find this concept in a pasuk in Yirmiyahu, “... אַל־יִתְהַלֵּל חָכָם בְּחָכְמָתוֹ וְאַל־יִתְהַלֵּל הַגִּבּוֹר בִּגְבוּרָתוֹ אַל יִתְהַלֵּל עָשִׁיר בְּעָשְׁרוֹ כִּי אִם־בְּזֹאת יִתְהַלֵּל הַמִּתְהַלֵּל הַשְׂכֵּל וְיָדֹעַ אוֹתִי .../… The wise man should not boast of his wisdom, and the strong man should not boast of his strength; the rich man should not boast of his wealth. Rather he that boasts should boast of this, that he understands and knows Me …” It is the knowledge of God, which includes, of course, that everything we are is from Him, that raises us up.

The arrogant who takes credit for his achievements is, in absolute terms, very lowly. By denying God’s hand in his achievements he cuts himself off from God. There is no one lower than he who is cut off from God. This is the meaning of, “מַשְׁפִּיל גֵאִים/He lowers the arrogant.” Their very haughtiness is what causes their truthfully low status.

This concept is the explanation of an enigmatic Zohar as well. The Zohar states that one who is lowly is great. One who is great is lowly. The Sfas Emes explains that one who is lowly in his own eyes because he attributes his achievements to God, is great. One who is great in his own eyes because he takes credit for his achievements, is in fact lowly. Arrogance is a sign of a person’s lowly status.[1]

The leper does not bring a cedar branch representing arrogance to remind him of his transgression. Rather he brings both a cedar branch and a hyssop branch to show that one informs the other. The arrogant are truly lowly, whereas the humble are truly on a high level.

May we merit attributing all our achievements to God thus experiencing Him constantly in our daily lives.

[1] We find in the Zohar (3:193b) that the sign of someone who knows nothing is one who sings his own praises.


Long Beach Chasid said...


Always a pleasure reading.

Are you a Ger Chasid?

Good Shabbos from Long Beach, Ca

Moshe David Tokayer said...

Nope. I had a very litvishe upbringing. My closest familial connection to chassidus is that one of my great grandfathers was a Belzer chassid. His son, my grandfather eschewed formal chassidus (following a specific Rebbe) but he was decidedly chassidish going to tishes, wearing a gartel and was close to the Chuster Rav - Rav Yehoshua Gruenwald (who was not a chassid) as opposed to the Chuster Rebbe - Rav Leifer. My father A"H, was far from chassidus.

In terms of chassidic thought, on the other hand, the Sfas Emes obviously speaks to me.

Anonymous said...

questio for you: are these essays your interpertation and understading of the Sfas Emes or are there other sources in Sfas Emes that you add from? For example, this one here say a lot more than the piece in the sefer.

Moshe David Tokayer said...

The point of this blog is to make the Sfas Emes understandable in English. The Sfas Emes's style of writing was concise in the extreme. So, I add explanation where needed.

Being that this is not a straight translation, it is obviously my understanding of the the Sfas Emes.

Most of my addition, however, is simply explaining what the Sfas Emes takes for granted. For example, I'll explain a Zohar in full where the Sfas Emes may quote a few words expecting that the reader knows it.

Where I introduce an idea that is not in the ma'amar, it is almost always in other ma'amarim of the Sfas Emes.

In the very rare instances that I introduce an idea that is not in the Sfas Emes at all, I credit the source.

What specifically were you referring to about this ma'amar?