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by Mordecai Kornfeld
of Har Nof, Jerusalem
Founder of the Dafyomi Advancement Forum

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Dedicated By Rabbi and Mrs. Yaakov Homnick and family of Yerushalayim, in memory of his father, Aharon ben Yisroel Falik Homnick, who passed away on 19 Sivan 5729, and mother, Shaina Homnick bas Moshe Aharon Glogover, who passed away on 2 Sivan 5736.

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In this week's Parasha we read that Moshe's sister Miriam embarrassed him by slandering him in a very personal manner. Moshe, however, was not bothered in the least by what she had said. The Torah (Bamidbar 12:3) attributes this to Moshe's exceptional modesty. One who is truly modest can bear any insult without feeling ill will to the person who insulted him. If a person does not feel that he "deserves" to be held in high esteem by others, he is able to take a loss of esteem in stride.

The trait of modesty, as difficult as it is to attain, is supremely worth striving for. As the Gemara puts it, "A person should always be dark (i.e. inconspicuous, humble) and then he will live" (Sanhedrin 92a). One who stays out of the limelight will be blessed with long years. The Gemara illustrates this maxim with an example. The affliction of Tzara'at, when it causes a blemish to appear on the wall of a house, can ultimately lead to the Halachic ruling that the house must be totally demolished. However, if the affliction strikes a *dark* corner of the house, which is not lit by the light of the sun, the Torah decrees that the laws of Tzara'at do not apply and there is no need to demolish the house. So too, a person who is "dark" will persevere.

The deeper meaning of the Gemara's analogy is not difficult to see. The blemish caused by Tzara'at, in this instance, represents the imperfections that are present in the character of every human being in the world. The more a person exposes himself publicly, the more likely it is for these imperfections to be brought into the limelight (as anyone who has ever run for public office can surely attest to). This, in turn, can shorten a person's life (since sins that are known publicly cause a "Chilul Hashem" -- a disgrace to the Divine Name). The blemishes of a person who remains in the dark will remain hidden, and therefore they will not cause him to expire prematurely.

It is perhaps for this selfsame reason that our Sages said, "Woe is to positions of leadership, for they bury the persons who occupy them" (Pesachim 87a). The more private a person remains, the longer he is bound to live.


Aside from long life, the reward that is in store for someone who conducts himself with modesty is immense. The Vilna Gaon (in "Even Shelemah") writes that for every second that a person "muzzles his mouth" by not reacting to insult and degradation, he will be rewarded with the right to benefit from the intense "hidden light" that is reserved for the truly righteous in the World to Come. Although no source is supplied by the Gaon for this statement, we may surmise that his statement was inspired by the words of the Gemara in Gittin:

Those who are insulted but do not insult in return, who hear themselves disgraced but do not reply... of them it is said (Shoftim 5:31), "Those who love [Hashem] will be like the sun when it shines with all its might." (Gittin 36b)

What does the Gemara mean that people who act with forbearance will be "like the sun in all its might?" Our Sages tell us that the brightnessS of the sun is dampened in this world. In the World to Come, however, it will return to its full strength (Avodah Zarah 3b -- see Parasha Page, Sukkot, 5756). This apparently is a reference to the "hidden" Primordial light which Hashem removed from this world at the beginning of Creation and reserved for the reward of the righteous in the World to Come (Rashi, Bereishit 1:4). When the Gemara tells us that the modest will "be like the sun when it shines with all its might," it means that they will merit to benefit from the Primordial Light in the World to Come. This is the source for the Vilna Gaon's assertion that the reward for modesty and forbearance is the privilege to benefit from the "hidden light."

Indeed, we find that Moshe, the humblest of all men, was blessed with this very blessing. Rashi tells us (Bamidbar 27:20) that "the countenance of Moshe was like that of the sun." This was the reward for Moshe's modesty.


It remains to be explained what connection "shining with the light of the sun" has with the virtue of modesty. In what way is that particular reward appropriate?

The Me'iri (a 14th century commentator from Provence) in Gittin suggests the following explanation. In Chullin (60b) the Gemara tells us that when the sun and the moon were originally created they shone with equal intensity. The moon felt that it was impossible for "two kings to rule with one crown," and it requested of Hashem to rectify this uncomfortable situation, expecting that the solution provided would be to its own satisfaction. Hashem responded that it would be the moon that would be reduced in size in order to correct the problem. (For an in-depth analysis of this Aggadic statement, see Parasha-Page, Parashat Ha'Chodesh, 5755.) So too, explains the Me'iri, will be the result whenever one person seeks to aggrandize himself at the expense of another. The victim of the attempted humiliation will "shine like the sun," which did not complain to Hashem and therefore did not lose its luster, while the other will be diminished in stature.

We may add that the "shine of the sun" represents the immanent Presence of Hashem -- "The word 'Shemesh' (which also means 'sun' in Hebrew) is an appellation for Hashem, as the verse (Tehillim 84:12) says, 'Hashem is a Shemesh and a shield'" (Sotah 10a). By stating that the countenance of a modest person shines like the sun, our Sages are saying that the Divine Presence of Hashem rests upon that person.

In Sotah 5a we are told that Hashem rests His Divine Presence only upon the modest, and that to the extent of a person's humility, to that extent the Presence of Hashem dwells upon him. This is exactly what the Gemara means by stating that the modest will shine as the sun in its full glory. The "shining countenance" of those who do not react to being insulted, and the Shechinah dwelling upon the meek, are different descriptions for the same situation.


In Pirkei Avot (4:4) we are taught, "Be very, very low of spirit." The Rambam (Maimonides), in his commentary to this Mishnah, comments on the expression "low of spirit" ("Shefal Ruach") that what is meant by this expression is much more than mere modesty. Lowness of spirit is an extreme form of self-effacing lowliness. And the Mishnah tells us that even such extreme modesty is not enough -- a person must be "very, very" low of spirit. The Rambam goes on to comment that although it is generally preferable to avoid extremes in character traits (such as stinginess or over-generosity, asceticism or self-indulgence, etc.), when it comes to modesty there is no such thing as "too much." The perils to which arrogance can lead make wise and righteous men avoid *any* semblance of conceit. (See Sotah 5a, "Do not [conduct yourself] with it (arrogance), not even with a bit of it." The Rambam presents a similar ruling on this topic in Mishneh Torah, Hil. De'ot, 2:3.) This is the level of humility that Moshe achieved.

Often, Chazal (the Sages of the Talmud) tell us that "A person should *always* ("le'Olam") do such and such," or "A person should *always* act in such and such a manner." At first glance, such sweeping statements seem to contradict the Rambam's rule of the "Golden middle." According to the Rambam, there is no course of action that should *always* be pursued. Everything must be done in moderation, which sometimes necessitates choosing the opposite character trait. However, upon further examination it may be discerned that Chazal only used this expression when they were dealing with the trait of modesty. Here are some examples:

"A person should *always* be humble, as Hillel was" (Shabbat 30a).

"A person should *always* judge his fellow man favorably (= give him the benefit of the doubt)" (Avot 1:6).

"A person should *always* be dark (inconspicuous) and alive" (quoted above -- Sanhedrin 92a).

"A person should *always* be pliant like a reed, and not firm like a cedar" (Ta'anit 20b)."

"A person should *always* eat and drink less than what he can afford, dress according to what he can afford, and honor his wife and children even beyond what he can afford" (Chullin 84b).

"A person should *always* be careful not to overstate his honor" (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tissa, #13).

Since this expression is used in connection with the attribute of modesty, it is in perfect agreement with the Rambam's guidelines for character traits -- there is no room for moderation when in comes to humility! May we all merit to achieve such perfection of character for ourselves.

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