Last Shabbos, Laibe Moshe recounted for me his recent conversation with his daughter. He told me how they talked for two hours about “tznius”, humility.
What is humility, or modesty, when applied to dress? Is it simply a manner of dress? Is it something one can perform perfunctorily, or automatically? When and where does it apply? What is its role in a Torah lifestyle?
We just read the book of Ruth on Shavuos. We learned how through her modesty, God selected Ruth to be the ancestor of kings. God also selected Tamar for the same reason. Tamar bore Judah’s son Peretz, the great grandfather of Boaz, who married Ruth. Both Ruth and Tamar’s descendants wed, and gave life to King David and his son King Solomon. We clearly learn God’s unbiased view of mankind: no one is more favored simply due to a bloodline. Although both gentiles, Ruth and Tamar embodied God’s values. A gentile is no less capable of perfection than a Jew. The fact is Adam and Eve were as gentile as Ruth and Tamar, so all people – Jews included – share the exact, same human design. Today’s Jews seeking “yichuss” – lineage – are wise to learn a lesson from those whom God’s selected as leaders. Messiah as well descends from Ruth and Tamar. Abraham was of an idolatrous family, serving idols himself. Nonetheless, as he developed and embodied the life of reason, he uncovered what is true: only One Cause exists for all we see. I believe it is due to Abraham’s ability to transition from idolater to monotheist that God selected him as a prime example of how capable is the human mind to discover truth, and cleave to one’s mind and its convictions. God orchestrated it that the Jewish nation descend from Abraham, in order that we all take a lesson from Abraham, our founding father, just as God wishes kings to take lessons from Ruth and Tamar, their ancestors. Regardless of idolatrous origins and lack of any teacher, Abraham used his reasoning powers alone, arriving at such profound truths, that God eventually spoke to him, and favored him. How perfected must he have been, and all on his own. What a shining example of God’s human design. Like Abraham, we are all independently equipped with reasoning, so as to arrive at what is true. Understanding reality that God exists, that He is the sole Creator, and that He relates to man so man may inherit the eternal good, is our objective, and where we will find the greatest fulfillment.
Our leaders – favored by God – embodied correct values and ideas, displayed in Ruth, Tamar, and Abraham. But these two qualities are not unrelated. One can only become wise, if he is truly humble, “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God…” (Psalms; 111:10) This means that man cannot learn if he does not recognize what immense knowledge exists: he knows not what to look for, so he does not desire it, or seek it out. But a man or woman who recognizes God’s reality, who is awed by the universe, and has tasted the Torah’s sweet waters, is excited at the prospect of unveiling another thought of our Sages. He will certainly remain without rest, until he penetrates the Talmud’s words, uncovering another enlightening idea.
Humility, then, is a prerequisite for Torah and scientific knowledge. And with humility, one fears God, and obeys His commandments, primarily because they are truth, but at times too, out of fear of punishment. Ultimately, the best life is lived not out of fear, but from a drive to know more. That is called “Love of God”, when we are drawn to the Source of all knowledge and reality.
But why does God desire kings to emanate from modest individuals? Was this a reward for Tamar and Ruth’s modesty? What type of reward can exist for someone long after they die?
We learn that a king must not increase horses, wives, silver or gold. A king must take a Torah wherever he travels, reading it daily. (Deut. 17:16-19) What do all these laws point to? They point to the next verse, “Lest his heart grow haughty over his brothers, and lest he turn from the commands…” (ibid 17:20)
The one danger kings face is allowing their positions to justify arrogance. What combats this emotion? Modesty. Therefore, God planned our kings to descend from those who embodied modesty. In this fashion, a king will be modest...but not through genetics.
By definition, man identifies with relatives more than with strangers. To insure a king will not become full of himself, God planned our kings to descend from those with whom they will naturally identify, and look to for instruction. Their identification with Ruth and Tamar will humble them. They will, in turn, rule the people not from arrogance, but from a genuine identification with others, only secured by a fostered humility. Such a king will be most effective in his role to lead the people towards God. A king must never lose sight of Israel’s objective: love of God. His compassion for others expressed via his just rule of the nation will lead the people towards Torah and love of God.
But let’s backtrack…how does one become modest? Is modesty a direct result of a discreet action, like being charitable: can one also simply “be” modest?
We learn in this week’s Parsha that “The man Moses was exceedingly more humble than any man on the face of the Earth.” (Num. 12:3) This was due to his great knowledge. Knowing more about God and reality than any other human, Moses understood the disparity between man and God better than any other person. For this reason, Moses was more humble. He knew his low position in the universe. This does not mean he was depressed, but that he understood man’s place, his place, he embraced it, and acted accordingly.
Furthermore, why should one be egotistical, or immodest? Did a person create himself, and cause his features and accomplishments alone, that he should take full credit through his arrogance? Reality teaches a person that something other than himself created him. As Pirkei Avos states (3:1), “know from where you came: a putrid drop [of semen]”. This helps one refrain from sin, since sin requires a person’s convictions in his own desires…his ego. But reflecting on his origins as a putrid drop, one should be humbled, and not sin.
True humility is only achieved over time, provided, one continues to study this world, and Torah. Only then will one understand how insignificant we are. And with this recognition of our true place, we concern ourselves less with strides towards fame, and attention from others. We will eventually dress differently, as a display of our convictions, for man tends to expresses what he feels. But a change of dress, although proper due to Halacha, must ultimately be the expression of one’s values. And values must be learned, considered, and then inculcated into personal conviction. All mitzvahs should be performed based on our conviction that they are true. A very modestly dressed individual who always speaks Lashon Hara has severely missed the point. Conversely, one who is just commencing the path towards modest dress, and possesses a “golden heart” - never speaking Lashon Hara, will eventually express her inner values in her outward dress. This latter person is certainly closer to the truth and far more perfected: a keener sensitivity advances nobler attitudes.
Modesty – tznius – is an outgrowth of our increased knowledge of God and Torah, and is truly an expression of our humbled natures. Of course we must adhere to Halacha (Jewish law) and obey laws of dress. But as Rashi says, if one performs a law while ignorant of its ideas and perfections, it is useless. Therefore, we are not exempt from the law, but we also must strive to understand why we are commanded in this law, and ultimately accept our insignificance, due to God’s greatness.
The Torah expresses a blatant demand for humility: “It has been told to you man, what is good, and what does God require of you: only that you perform justice and loving kindness, and humbly walk before God.” (Micha, 6:8)
Radak explains: 1) “performing justice” as referring to mitzvahs; 2) “loving kindness” is explained as doing more than what is commanded; and 3) “walking humbly” Radak quotes the Talmud’s elaboration (Succah 49b) that one must attend funerals and weddings humbly. Why these three? I believe it to mean that when performing God’s will, we must do so for the correct reason, and not for the fanfare. Thus, there are two areas of God’s will: 1) mitzvahs, and 2) doing even what is not commanded, like Abraham who possessed no Torah. And when performing these two, we must 3) do so for the right reasons: not for applause, but humbly.
However, how do we derive from Micha’s words “walking humbly” that man must attend funerals and weddings? That seems arbitrary. Rashi explains. He says that our verse in Micha uses the word “lechess” (to go). “Lechess” reappears in Ecclesiastes, “Better to go (lechess) to a house of mourning, than to go (lechess) to a celebration”. (Eccl. 7:2) The Rabbis thereby derive the following lesson from the repeated instance of “lechess” in Micha and Ecclesiastes: the humility in Micha is to be expressed in Ecclesiastes’ destinations of houses of mourning, and weddings. Thus, one must be humble when performing these two mitzvahs of burial and weddings.
That is understandable. One should be modest, and not arrogantly cut bar lines or push people at a wedding smorgasbord. One should also not boast if he pays for a burial of a poor man, or a poor bride’s wedding. Boasting violates modesty and humility. But it still seems strange that the command in Micha refers to performing mitzvahs. I mean, aren’t there other areas in which we should be even more modest? The Talmud states that one should relieve himself at night, as he does during the day. Relieving one’s self has nothing to do with mitzvah, and makes more sense to be connected with modesty than mitzvah. For one exposes himself to relieve himself, so modesty naturally applies. And with the cover of nightfall, human emotion tends to be more expressive and deviant. So why couldn’t Micha simply mean, “be modest even when you need to expose yourself” or something similar? This is one problem with Micha.
Another problem is the Talmud’s conclusion. The Talmud poses this a fortiori argument: “If one is commanded to be humble in mitzvahs performed publicly like weddings, he is certainly bound to be modest in private mitzvahs” like giving charity to the poor arriving at your door - a private venue. Now, I would agree with a person who said, “If I can lift 5 pounds, I certainly can lift 1 pound.” That reasoning of certainty is perfect. So is this: “If I like a little chocolate, I will like a lot”. In both cases, the first premise assures the second premise as a certain truth: a 1 lb. weight offers greater “ease” of lift than 5, and regarding desirous tastes, a greater “enjoyment” exists with greater quantity of chocolate. But the Talmud’s reasoning regarding humility doesn’t appear to follow. How does it follow, that if I must be modest in public mitzvahs, then, I must certainly be modest in private mitzvahs? What is the category in private mitzvahs that is “greater”?
Let’s rephrase this question: what is in greater need when one is alone? The answer is “attention”, for the ego is always seeking satisfaction. Now, how does this express itself in connection with mitzvahs?
Performing a mitzvah publicly, man feels self-righteous, and his ego is content. There is nothing to seek. He is therefore commanded to perform the mitzvah humbly, and not seek any ulterior motive, as that danger exists in publicly performed mitzvahs. One can daven at a wedding in public very calmly, answering the blessings quietly. Or, he can shout above everyone else, gaining attention for his “righteous” devotion. Therefore, we are commanded by Micha to perform mitzvos humbly, not seeking ego satisfaction. But when one is alone, man’s ego is unsatisfied, “No one saw me do this mitzvah” and he wishes an audience.
We can now understand the argument of certainty: if in public mitzvahs when our egos are content that others see us so righteous we are commanded to be humble, then certainly when the need for ego is greater in private mitzvahs, we should not seek to boast of our “righteousness” after the fact.
This explanation answers our previous question, why Micha teaches that man must express humility in the realm of mitzvahs, as opposed to mundane matters. It is because in mitzvah, man’s ego finds a guilt-free expression, rationalized that when performing God’s will he can seek glory for it. Man thinks, “If the Torah says I must do mitzvahs, I am justified in flaunting my righteousness”. This sentiment is to be avoided.
This is Micha’s lesson: not simply to be a modest person, but deeper, and stated openly in Pirkei Avos: “Do not make the Torah a spade with which to dig”. (Avos, 4:5) We are instructed to perform mitzvahs for our perfection, not for our glory.
We learn of a “command”: to be humble in our mitzvah performances, and when going over and above what is commanded, just as we are required to be Kadosh, sanctified. This is expressed in distancing ourselves from that which is even permitted: we should not be gluttonous, or overindulging in sexual activity.
We also learn from Moses that humility is proportionate to our knowledge, so a false humility is certainly a reality, from which we should refrain, as it is a lie.
Maimonides teaches that in all emotional spectrums, man should live in-between the two extremes: not frivolous with money, and not miserly. Man should not be morbid, nor a jester. A Rabbi once explained this is a correct prescription, as the middle ground keeps one equidistant from close proximity to an extreme where the emotional pull is strongest. Remaining furthest from the pull of the two poles in any emotional spectrum –equidistant from both – we enable our intellect to remain more involved in wisdom, what will truly afford us the greatest life, as God wishes for us all. However, Maimonides taught that there are two emotions that we must go to the opposite extreme so as to avoid: never become angry, and never satisfy arrogance. We learn not to seek ego satisfaction with publicly flaunting our Torah adherence.
Humility, then, originates from greater wisdom, and should naturally be expressed in our appearance, which plays a major role in our egos. Ultimately, humility prepares us for a life of wisdom as we reduce our infantile focus on the self, engaging more time in study, and a real preoccupation with and awe for the Creator.