Stay Humble. Be Kind.
Be Kind. That was the message from our Prime Minister after each and every alert level briefing and in the COVID-19 government website and around signs on the motorways as well. It was a simple, effective, and very important message. Our values matter when it comes to holding each other accountable, keeping to regulations,
and how we handle ourselves during stressful and challenging times. However, I believe now that we are officially (and hopefully sustainably) ahead of the curve in terms of COVID-19 there is another value we need to add to the messaging - Stay Humble.
Humility is a fundamental Jewish value, and one could argue the most important attribute in Judaism in the macro sense and in each individual’s personal life as well. Humility in Hebrew is “Anava” (ענוה). The Torah goes out of its way to emphasize that Moshe Rabeinu was the “Most Humble of all People” in Parashat Beha’alotcha. Moshe is the epitome of humility, and for this quality alone was able to be the only person who could facilitate the giving of the Torah. The Midrash gives an analogy to receiving prophecy and points out the clear distinction between the prophecy of Moshe Rabeinu and all other prophets. The other prophets received a message from God like sunlight coming through stain-glass windows, whereas the prophecy of Moshe was like sunlight coming through a clear sheet of glass, or “Aspaklariya Hame’ira” (אספקלריא המאירה). Stain-glass windows are beautiful, but when the light shines through it projects the colour of the window. Similarly, each prophet gave their own personal interpretation and subjectivity or even bias when delivering prophecy to the nation. This is not a criticism of the prophets, rather a mere reality of human nature. The prophets were supposed to give their own interpretation and personal touch on the prophecies they delivered to the nation, in order to make it authentic, relevant and relatable. Moshe’s mission, in contrast, was to relay God’s Torah as is to the People of Israel, and was not allowed to give his own personal interpretation or include any subjectivity in delivering the Torah. In order to accomplish that seemingly impossible mission, Moshe had to be a vessel, relaying the message in its entirety without tainting it - just like a clear sheet of glass that doesn’t tint the sunlight even one bit. That is the ultimate level of humility - doing the right thing for the sake of the value, and not for any personal gain whatsoever.
Humility for the rest of us is still a value we can accomplish, just on a different level. Rav Avraham HaKohen Kook z”l, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel (when it was still under the British Mandate), defines humility as “knowing your place in the world”. Sometimes we need to step up and take a stance, and other times we need to step back and give space to others. The one critical component of a humble person is never needing to promote themselves, rather, like Moshe, fulfilling the mission for the sake of the mission. In fact, Maimonides teaches that the most dangerous attribute one could attain is arrogance, when a person performs actions, good or bad, for their own personal gain. Maimonides teaches that one should stay away from arrogance to the extreme by overcompensating on being humble, but not self-deprecating. If one achieves extreme humility while still attaining a healthy sense of self-esteem and self-worth, only then will one refrain from arrogance.
The Midrash shares a story of one of the great Sages of the Second Temple Era, Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach, to emphasize the need for humility and the dangers of arrogance. Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach (רבי אלעזר בן ערך) was a student of Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai. Rabban Ben Zakkai started the Torah centre in Yavneh, escaping the walls of Jerusalem, and established the High Court (Beit Din) in Yavneh. He himself was a student of the great Sage, Hillel, and Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach was his greatest student, to the point that Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai is quoted in the Secon Chapter of Ethics of our Father (Pirkei Avot) saying that if all of the students were on one side of the scale and Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach on the other side of the scale, Rabbi Elazar would tip the scales all by himself!
When Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai moved to Yavneh, in an incredible controversial but necessary move out of Jerusalem, all of Rabban Yochanan’s students followed him to Yavneh, except for Rabbi Elazar, who elected to travel with his wife to a small and pastoral village called Imaus. When the students did not follow Rabbi Elazar to Imaus he doubled down and remained there following his wife’s advise to him that “the mice will follow the cheese” - and since his Torah was greater than the other students, they would surely follow him to Imaus and not stay in Yavneh. The Midrash in Kohelet Rabba (7, 7) later explains that Rabbi Elazar forgot his entire Torah learning at that point, because of his arrogance. There are some versions that say Rabbi Elazar learned the Torah from scratch with Elijah the Prophet and is quoted saying: “One should go away to a Torah centre to learn Torah, and not expect the students to follow the teacher” (Shabbat 147b), a testament to Rabbi Elazar learning his lesson the hard way.
New Zealand is claiming to be the first nation to get rid of COVID-19 from its borders. This is an unbelievable accomplishment, but we must remain humble. First, COVID-19 is still raging around the world and there could, and most likely will be, the second wave in many countries still. We must stay diligent especially when the country eventually opens its borders, to ensure that COVID-19 stays at bay as much as possible. Second, New Zealand has set an example of how to masterfully “flatten the curve”, but we must remember that New Zealand was also presented with the opportunity to do so due to its geographical distance from practically everywhere (Talk about social distancing…). New Zealand seized the opportunity granted to its citizens and this is not simply because of our decision making, but also because of circumstances that were out of our control that worked in our favour. Third, just like Rabbi Elazar Ben Arach, we must not think we are better than other countries, rather use our opportunity to aid other countries and communities around the world. In short, the fact that New Zealand got ahead of COVID-19 should not be a source of self-promotion, rather an opportunity to stay humble and help others.
Now that we are in Level 1, my message to the community is:
Stay Alert. Stay Humble. Be Kind.
And may Hashem keep our country safe and give our leaders and decision-makers the wisdom to make the right decisions in these unprecedented times.