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Jewish Humility and Ambition

There is a common misunderstanding that the Jewish path to repentance (teshuvah) requires us to reduce our goals, to aim for simpler, less ambitious lives. This idea of humility means considering ourselves small and unimportant.

But true Jewish humility does not imply that we should be meek in front of Hashem. On the contrary: G-d created us, and he expects us to achieve great things with our lives. Jewish humility has everything to do with realizing that all people are blessed with neshamas from Hashem, and that true service of Hashem means always considering and assisting those less fortunate than ourselves, especially strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor. R’ Meir said “hevei shefal ruach bifnei kol adam,” “we should be humble before every man.” Jewish humility is not about denying our capabilities – how can servants of the King of Kings consider ourselves powerless? – on the contrary, humility is about being considerate and caring about others.

In the period from Rosh Chodesh Elul until Hoshanah Rabbah, we are being judged by Hashem, and the decrees and blessings of the new year are meted out. In this period, we are at our most introspective, trying to examine our faults and correct them. We are setting our goals for the new year, taking on new obligations, and trying to become better people in thought, word and deed. And it is this time of year in which we ask G-d to answer our prayers, to decide that our desires and ambitions are indeed for His sake, to achieve the purposes for which the whole world was created. It has often been said that if we want G-d to bless us with something, then we need to explain first to Him why that blessing is for the sake of Heaven. In the most dramatic example, we read on Rosh Hashana of Chana’s oath that if G-d blesses her with a baby, she will give him over to be Hashem’s servant. G-d grants her wish, and she fulfilled her vow. G-d answers our prayers when those prayers, and our ambitions that drove them, are not for ourselves, but for the sake of Heaven.

In this season, we add a single psalm to our prayers twice a day: Psalm 27, which begins, “G-d is my light and my salvation.” I once heard a fascinating analysis of this psalm by Dayan Binstock that put this whole season in perspective. David wrote Psalm 27 when he had been turned out of the king’s house, and he was rightly in fear for his life. David was on the run, a wanted man.

In this time he wrote this psalm, including the phrase, “One thing I ask of Hashem, that shall I seek: That I sit in the House of Hashem all the days of my life.” What does it mean?

The House of Hashem is, of course, none other than the Beis Hamikdash – the House of G-d that Yaakov first swore to build more than six hundred years previously. So David,  a poor shepherd who was raised as a bastard, and, at the time he wrote this psalm, a man whom the King was trying to kill, was aiming to do no less than fulfill Yaakov’s open vow. That is breathtaking ambition.

But David was not finished. Not just anyone can “sit” in G-d’s house. Even the Cohen Gadol cannot sit down in the Beis Hamikdash. According to Halacha, the only person who is allowed to sit in the Beis Hamikdash is the King.

So this is the meaning of “One thing I ask of Hashem, that shall I seek: That I sit in the House of Hashem all the days of my life.” David was saying that he wanted to be King, and he wanted to build the Beis Hamikdash!

David did not let adversity dial back his desires to grow his relationship to Hashem, to achieve everything that a man could possibly achieve in the life span allotted to him. 

So in this season of introspection, of setting our goals for the new year, we are reminded twice a day of the true meaning of humility: we are humble if we serve G-d with everything we have, and never forget that all other people also are blessed with neshamas from Hashem, with near-infinite potential. But we must also remember that we are meant to follow David’s example, to look beyond the everyday barriers, and to try to achieve great things, to reach our fullest potential. True Jewish humility demands no less.

Footnote:

David, of course, became king. But he was denied the honor of building the Beis Hamikdash. It could be suggested that one reason comes from this very pasuk: David asked for “one thing” (sit in the house of Hashem) that was really two (become King, and build the Beis Hamikdash). G-d answered his prayer for one thing, not both.

Comments are welcome!

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