Dust and Ashes
Chapter 4, Mishna 4
By Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld
"Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh said: Be extremely lowly of spirit, for the
end of man is worms."
This week's mishna advises us to be humble, "lowly of spirit." We should
not be excessively proud of ourselves and our talents. We certainly must
not identify too strongly with that bit of flesh into which G-d breathed
our souls, "for the end of man is worms."
Our mishna's language may strike us. Be extremely lowly ("me'od
me'od" ("very very") in Hebrew). R. Levitas does not mince his words. Go
to an extreme; treat yourself like dirt. Consider yourself and your body
as the rotting carcass it will one day become.
And this should strike us. Judaism (in spite of a perhaps fundamentalist
image) is not a religion of extremes. It does not preach poverty, celibacy
or self-flagellation. It even instructs us (from a theological standpoint,
that is) to look after our health. Thus, we would expect the Torah to
foster a more balanced attitude towards our physical halves and our self
images. Shouldn't we see ourselves as important and potentially great
individuals? Aren't our bodies worthy and Divinely-constructed tools to be
used in the service of G-d? Won't such crushing self-denigration demean us
and sap us of our self-confidence? Should we really views ourselves as
nothing more than eventual food for worms?
To explain, I would like to back up a bit. Let us first better define the
arrogance our mishna decries. We will then be able to distinguish between
true, healthy humility and a crushing, debilitating sense of worthlessness.
The Sages view arrogance as virtually the antithesis of everything Jewish.
The Talmud writes that a person who is conceited is as one who commits
idolatry, and that G-d says to such a person: "He and I cannot dwell
together in the world" (Sotah 4b-5a). The implication is that one who is
vain -- who is full of himself -- has left no room for G-d. He commits
idolatry in that he worships himself and his own qualities -- failing, of
course, to realize that it was G-d who blessed him with his talents to
Further, such a person is guilty of "stealing" from G-d, priding himself
for qualities which are truly not his own. As my teacher R. Yochanan Zweig
(www.talmudicu.edu) often points out, any skills or natural aptitudes
which were basically granted to us at birth cannot truly be
considered "ours". We did nothing to earn them; they are direct gifts from
G-d -- and ultimately His possessions. Our own small part in them is only
in realizing our potential, the degree to which we humbly make good the
trust G-d has invested in us.
Maimonides (Mishne Torah Hil' De'os 1:4
www.torah.org/learning/mlife/ch1law3-4a.html), while discussing proper
character traits, states that ordinarily the golden middle is our best
approach to life. One should not be too lustful or too ascetic, too cheap
or too extravagant, too sullen or too frivolous. Nevertheless, there are
two exceptions to this golden rule -- one of them being humility (ibid.,
2:3 www.torah.org/learning/mlife/ch2law3a.html). We must go to the extreme
in self-effacement and the avoidance of ego.
And the reason for this is that arrogance is not just a matter of a single
bad trait. The more a person is the center of his own world the less
likely he will be capable of forging a relationship with G-d. To do so
requires that we give up a little of ourselves. If we recognize the G-d
who entrusted us with our abilities, we can begin to repay that G-d and
make good His trust. The arrogant person, however, focuses on himself
alone. He has robbed G-d, so to speak, of the talents he was blessed with.
He is thus missing the most fundamental component for building a
relationship with G-d. In fact, the good deeds he does perform may be
doing no more than increasing his pride and haughtiness -- further
distancing himself from G-d, rather than bringing him closer.
But there is something far more subtle here. Most sins and negative
character traits are easy to spot. Anger, miserliness, rashness, apathy:
we (or at least others) generally know full well when we suffer from such.
Arrogance, however, is a far more cunning animal: it is protean.
(Depression is also an elusive one, but for another discussion...) A great
rabbi (I believe it was R. Moshe Sofer, of 18th-19th Century central
Europe)) once remarked that signs of humility may themselves be a form of
arrogance. I think this can be best illustrated with a good Jewish joke I
The scene was the synagogue shortly before Kol Nidre services on Yom
Kippur eve. The mood was tense, palpably so -- the strong feelings of
remorse over past deeds, anxiousness to get going with the services. The
full solemnity of the day weighed heavily upon the congregation. Suddenly,
the rabbi, no longer able to contain himself, rushes up to the ark and
cries out "Ich bin a gornisht! Ich bin a gornisht!" ("I'm a no one! I'm a
no one!" -- that's Yiddish) and returns to his seat, just a little bit
relieved. Shortly after, the shammash (beadle) takes the rabbi's lead and
follows suit. Pretty soon the leading community members, then the average
ones, all file up one at a time to cry out their own confession.
An itinerant beggar has meanwhile wandered in to the synagogue and sat
himself on the back bench. Rather bewildered by all the commotion, he
figures that this must be the synagogue custom or something, and so he too
drags himself in front of the congregation and does the same. At that
point the rabbi turns to the beadle and says, "Oich mir a gornisht!"
(Poorly translated: "Who does he think he is calling himself a nobody?")
I was never a very good joke teller, and in that spirit I'll do the
unforgivable: I'll explain the joke -- because I really want this
message driven home. What was funny about the scene? Because when the
rabbi or someone "important" humbles himself before G-d he's doing
something. In spite of his greatness he's admitting his smallness. And
that admission, of course, makes him even greater. But when someone who
really is a no one humbles himself -- well, what good is that? What does
he think he's trying to show?!
Another important counter example, not as funny but equally tragic, and
one I've observed close up many a time. Say someone keeps to himself and
refuses to receive honors (say during synagogue services). He may
be doing so as a way of feeling aloof from the crowd. Subconsciously he is
saying: "Nobody knows the true respect I deserve. I don't want them
to honor me. Better to be in my own world -- bitter at the lack of
recognition I receive, rather than together in the world of others --
grateful for the honors I have received." Such a person is in the center
of his own little world -- a very self-centered one -- which leaves little
room for others and certainly none for G-d. (And it requires a lot
of willpower to wrest oneself from such a selfish little universe.) It
matters little how many mitzvos (commandments) such a person is fulfilling
and how much of the Talmud he has memorized. He is serving no one but
Jeremiah expresses it simply but eloquently: "Thus says the L-rd: Let not
the wise man glory in his wisdom, and let not the strong man glory in his
strength. Let not the rich man glory in his riches. For in this shall he
that glories glory -- understand and know Me... says the L-rd" (9:22-23).
Good deeds in the context of building a relationship with G-d are
invaluable. Used to raise myself above and look down upon others, they are
acts of pettiness, selfishness, and ultimately of distancing myself from G-
Now let us return to our initial question. Arrogance may be all-consuming,
but why must we go to the opposite extreme? Didn't we learn last week that
G-d willed it that no two people are alike, that every one of us is unique
and can contribute to the world in a way no other can? Our bodies might be
dust and ashes, but aren't our souls formed of the breath of G-d Himself?
Is such pathetic self-deprecation even healthy, let alone admirable?
I'll answer briefly this week -- this is a theme we will hopefully return
to in the future. But in a word, the answer is that we must distinguish
between humility and its far cousin -- low self esteem. Humility does not
mean we must tell ourselves we are worthless or undeserving. Moses was
called humblest of men (Numbers 12:3) though he most certainly knew he was
the greatest prophet ever and lawgiver of the nation (and he certainly
always found the gumption to take sinners head on when the need arose).
Abraham referred to himself as "dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27) though
there is no doubt he knew full well the pivotal role he was playing in
Rather, humility means we see ourselves as full -- even proud -- members
of humankind, possessing all the greatness and uniqueness this entails.
Yet we are not aggrandized by such a notion. We humbly and solemnly accept
our obligation. It was G-d who entrusted us with such talent and
potential. We have much to live up to.
Low self esteem is too a lack of arrogance, but in a very different way.
We are not full of ourselves, but it is because we lack a true recognition
of our uniqueness and potential. One with low self esteem may lack a
healthy awareness of his uniqueness or may subconsciously be denying it --
in order to shirk the greatness he knows he can live up to. Neither
alternative will help us realize our goal. Only if we recognize our
greatness and the Creator from which it came, can we begin to
turn "dust and ashes" into "the world was created for me" (Mishna
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org.