Humility, A Lesson in Life
By Avi Lazerson
There was a time when humility was considered a most desired character trait to possess. Today making money, living conspicuously and ostentatiously enjoying the good life are major goals and values, refined character in a person and especially humility has lost its importance. We value the ability to make a good living and to live well and they have now become entrenched as important character traits replacing the refinement of the person as a measure for success.
In the Talmud (Sota 30a) an interesting story is told of Rabbi Avahu and his high regard for humility. Rabbi Avahu said about himself that he had considered himself humble. But when he saw the humility of Rabbi Aba of Acco he said that he no longer could considered himself a person who possessed humility.
The Talmud asks what caused Rabbi Avahu to change his mind?
To understand the answer we must first know a bit about life in their times. In the time of the Talmud, the Rabbis would not speak directly to a large group of people, instead they had another person, who was called an Amora, who could speak very loudly and clearly stand in front of the people an intelligent microphone of sorts. The Rabbi would speak in a low voice to his Amora and explain to him what he wanted to say to the people and when the rabbi would finish his explanation, the Amora said it in a very loud voice to the people.
One time he saw Rabbi Aba explaining some difficult concept to a large gathering. When he finished explaining it to his Amora, the Amora gave it over to the people but with an explanation different than that of Rabbi Aba. When Rabbi Avahu saw that Rabbi Aba was not upset with his Amora and did not censure him, after seeing Rabbi Aba's actions he said of himself that he did not possess humility.
The Talmud continues its story by asking what had caused Rabbi Avahu to originally think that he possessed humility. It answered that once the wife of Rabbi Avahu's Amora said to Rabbi Avahu's wife, "My husband (the Amora) does not need your husband (to give deep and detailed explanations). The only reason that the people stand up and bow down to your husband is only to give him honor (so that he should feel good about himself)." This of course was a real put down to Rabbi Avahu.
Rabbi Avahu's wife came to him and reported what his Amora's wife had said. He told her that it really does not matter what he said, what is important is that G-d should be praised. Because he was not upset by this unseemly insult by his personal "public speaker" he felt that he possessed a high degree of humility.
However, in comparison to Rabbi Aba he realized that had he been in the same situation as Rabbi Aba, he would have become angry. In the case of Rabbi Aba and his Amora, the insult was open, direct and in front of a large group of people. Rabbi Avahu's insult was not direct, was not in front of other people. Rabbi Avahu's Amora had always been respectful to Rabbi Avahu's face. Rabbi Aba, who was embarrassed in public, instead of rebuking his Amora and thereby embarrassing him, chose to let it pass. Since this was not a halachic discussion and the Jewish law was not perverted, he was not required to correct him.
Rabbi Avahu realized that his insult was not directly to his face nor had it been in public as in the case of Rabbi Aba. But he knew that had it happened to himself, he would have become angry. For this, Rabbi Avahu said about himself that he did not possess humility. Even though to our standard of thinking we find it difficult to accept such fine degree of refinement in humility, never the less, for Rabbi Avahu, since he did not measure up to Rabbi Aba, he feel bereft of humility totally.
Is it possible for us to learn a life lesson from this story? We are so totally immersed in a culture that values physicality and sanctifies the pursuit of pleasures to such an extent that we have difficulty in relating to concepts of humility and character refinement. Yet we know that the values of this type of culture have led many people astray. This culture is not one of a content society, it is always looking to better itself physically, it is always looking for methods of increasing pleasures. It is a society without friends, with transient marriages, with unconnected families; it is a society that is reaping the fruits of its perverted value system. Like blind men groping in the day, they can not see their mistake.
Striving for refinement in character traits and honesty in dealing with ourselves are the tools for truly living a good life. The goodness in life comes from the refinement of the character, not from the enjoyment of the physical.
from the July 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine