Modesty, an Insight from Yom Kippur


Modesty, an Insight from Yom Kippur


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The Rewards of Modesty

By Yisrael Rutman

In the time of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the service of Yom Kippur, the Holiest day of the year, the day of attonement, is a day that was focused on the service of one man in the Holy Temple. He was the Cohen Gadol, the high priest. Although all through the year, other priest would officiate in the Holy Temple, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would officiate. Not only that, but as part of the service, he went into the Holy of Holies, a inner chamber that was forbidden to all to enter, even the High Priest, except on this day.

Inside of the Holy of Holies, was the original Ark of the Covenant and inside of the Ark was the original Ten Commandments. Only the High Priest was allowed to enter, and only on Yom Kippur.

Can you imagine the elation of the High Priest seeing these Holy articles. The Ten Commandments were those that G-d had given to Moses at Mount Sinai.

What mother did not want her son to be the high priest? What "Kohen" did not want to be the High Priest? The office of the High Priest was for life. How few people merited to become the High Priest. Realizing this, we may appreciate a story related in the Tamud.

The Talmud tells of a woman by the name of Bas Kimchis, whose seven sons all became High Priests in the Temple in Jerusalem. When asked how she merited that her children reached such an exalted status, she said it was because she dressed with great modesty even in the private quarters of her house where nobody saw her.

It is difficult to comprehend why Bas Kimchis was rewarded to such an extent. The High Priest stood at the pinnacle of holiness; he was the spiritual representative of the entire nation. If modesty is just a matter of neck lines and hem lines, the reward seems disproportionate. We could understand if she merited to have children who were modest like their mother (and they all shopped together in the same clothing stores), but why the priesthood?

In order to shed some light on this question, let's examine another Talmudic passage

that touches on the same subject. The prophet Malachi declared that all of Judaism could be compressed into three basic precepts: doing justice, loving kindness and walking modestly with G-d. The Talmud does not explain that Malachi had in mind

anything about covering up the physical body. Rather, the examples given to illustrate the prophet's words are---bringing the bride to the wedding canopy and burying the dead. Those who perform such good deeds, even though they are normally done in public, should do so modestly, without excess or attracting undue attention to themselves.

Modesty---in Hebrew, tsniut---takes other forms, as well. Queen Esther is praised for keeping the secret of her Jewish identity until the right time came to divulge it. And her tsniut---perhaps better translated in this case as self-restraint---was instrumental in saving the Jewish people from destruction.

In a similar vein, the author of Paths of the Righteous (Orchos Tsadikkim) writes that "one should accustom himself to be silent in the synagogue (except in prayer, of course), for this is tsniut, modesty." He is always to us "the author of Paths of the Righteous" because he chose to publish his work anonymously. In the Jewish tradition of anonymous authorship, his goal was not fame or honor for himself, but to share his wisdom with others. His own self-effacing attitude is the eptiome of modesty.

This, then, is the Jewish concept of tsniut, modesty. Modest attire is but one manifestation of it. For modesty is not just a code of dress; it's a mode of being. modesty entails the subju-

gation of the drives and attractions of the self to the performance of mitzvos. What is important is that the mitzvah should be done, not that I was the one to do it; that the book should be published, not that I am the author. The role of the dress code is that it serves as a way of de-emphasizing the physical self. It helps us all, men and women, to think about each other and ourselves as human beings with a spiritual dimension, and not just as creatures of desire.

Rabbi Nosson Tsvi Finkel, also known as the Alter of Slobodka, elucidates a further subtlety: taking the Talmud's example of rejoicing at the wedding party, he says that tsnuis is the hidden dimension, and should not at all diminish the mitzvah. Outwardly, one should rejoice normally along with everyone else, participating fully in the singing, dancing and feasting. Modesty consists in striving to direct all of those activities for the happiness of the wedding couple, not for oneself. Any excess, anything not necessary for the mitzvah goal, should be put aside. (So much for the second helping of dessert.)

In other words, one should say: "I do not go to the wedding to have a good time, but to give a good time."

To return to our original question: The most important function of the High Priest was the service he conducted in the Temple on Yom Kippur. An entire tractate of the Talmud (Yoma) is devoted to it, and a major section of our own Yom Kippur service in synagogue to this day revolves around it. For one entire day he was the absolute center of attention. All the people came to watch the High Priest on that day. The world stood still as he entered the Holy of Holies, uttered the ineffable name of G-d, begged forgiveness for the Jewish people, and blessings for all.

If his awesome duties would be in any way tainted by feelings of pride, everything would be in jeopardy. The most public acts of the High Priest called for the most modest personality; to be thinking only of G-d and Israel, and not of himself---and as the whole world watched him. To be, in other words, the center of attention without being self-centered. Such modesty, such self-control, such refinement of spirit, could only be imparted to her sons by a woman who herself possessed those qualities---only a model of modesty such as Bas Kimchis.

In our generation, until the restoration of the Temple and the Priesthood, there is no such reward for modesty. Nevertheless, like every mitzvah, there is an eternal reward. But one doesn't have to wait for that, either. The feeling of dignity that modesty imparts to those who live by it, is its own reward, right here and now.

We also can realize and achieve that aspect of the High Priest on Yom Kippur. We, too, can serve G-d with that same self-effacement, living modestly with G-d.


from the October High Holiday 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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