Friday, March 09, 2007

Radiating True Splendor

(Guest post by R. Dovid Gottlieb)

In describing Moshe’s descent from the mountain with the second set of luchos, the Torah famously informs us that Moshe was unaware that “keren ohr panav” – his face radiated light (34:29).

The Rabbis in the Midrash (Shemos Rabbah #47) are puzzled by the origin of what they refer to as these “karnei hod” – rays of splendor. When Moshe went up to receive the Torah he did not possess this light; so the question is: where did it come from?

While a number of answers are suggested – each one fascinating – I want to focus on the final answer given in the Midrash.

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Ad she’haya kasav be’kulmus” – While writing (the Torah) with a quill, “nishtayer kimah” – some ink was left over, “ve’he’eviro al rosho – and he passed it over his head, “u’mimenu na’aseh karnei ha-hod” – and from that the rays of splendor were created for him. Moshe’s radiance was the result of the left-over ink from the quill with which he wrote the Torah.

This is a remarkable Midrash and a vivid metaphor, but the question is, what does it mean?

A number of meforshim explain the deeper meaning of this Midrash by first asking a question on the literal meaning of the Midrash. How is it possible that there was extra ink in the quill? Didn’t God know exactly how much ink was needed? Is it possible that God miscalculated?

The Ohr ha-Chayim and the great Chassidic sage, the Rebbe Reb Heschel, both explain that the quill possessed exactly the right amount of ink necessary to complete the Torah as God had intended it be written. But, as it happened, Moshe prevailed upon God, and convinced Him that the Torah been written slightly different than planned.

The extra ink in the quill was the result of Moshe writing the word “anav” without the letter ‘yud’ in the pasuk which proclaims “ve’ha-ish Moshe anav me’od mikol ha-adam asher al pe’nei ha-adamah” – and the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any man on the face of the earth (Bamidbar 12:13).

Moshe, in his humility, could not bring himself to write the word in its complete form and therefore left out the letter ‘yud.’ It was the ink that should have been used for that 'yud' which was the source of the rays of glory that shone from Moshe's face.

In other words, according to the Ohr Ha-Chayim and the Rebbe Reb Heschel, the extra ink symbolized Moshe’s humility and it was this character trait which caused his face to radiate a special glow.

This should serve as a powerful reminder of the importance of the middah of anavah. Because the truth is that for many of us, the opposite character trait, arrogance, or ga’avah, is a perennial problem.
And this isn’t only true the brilliant, rich, or famous. The reality is that many of us are arrogant even when we know that there is no rational basis for our arrogance.

One of the great Mussar Masters used to enjoy telling the following fable: “When I get to Heaven,” he said, “they’ll ask me, why didn’t you learn more Torah? And I’ll tell them that I am slow-witted. Then they’ll ask me, why didn’t you do more kindness for others? And I’ll tell them that I am physically weak. Then they’ll ask me, why didn’t you give more to charity? And I’ll tell them that I didn’t have enough money. But then they’ll ask me: if you were so stupid, weak, and poor, why were you so arrogant? And for that I won’t have an answer.” (Climbing Jacob’s Ladder, pp. 90-91)

And perhaps the most common obstacle to following Moshe’s example is simply a misunderstanding of the true meaning of humility.

Far too many people have a notion similar to something I recently came across in a Church sermon. “The supreme height of spiritual loveliness,” the saying went, “is to be lovely and not to know it.”

I think that this is the conventional understanding of humility: we must deny our own talents and accomplishments. Any awareness of our own “loveliness” is in and of itself a mark of arrogance.

“What, me smart? No way!” “What, me funny? Ahh C’mon!”

This may be the Christian conception of humility but from the Jewish perspective it is a profound error.

It is inconceivable that anavah come at the expense of emes; we don’t barter honesty for humility. We are called upon to strive for truth in all areas of our life and this includes being honest with ourselves. Furthermore, to deny God’s gifts smacks of ingratitude.

In fact, humility is the awareness that the ultimate source of one’s abilities and talents is God and that those gifts have been given to us to be used for a constructive purpose.
We have all been blessed in countless ways. Humility doesn’t obligate us to deny these blessings. On the contrary, humility requires us to acknowledge that these blessings come from God and to use them accordingly.

If we have been given more talents than our neighbor or if we have attained greater success than our friends, that doesn’t make us better than other people, it just makes us more blessed.

Similarly, when the Torah says that Moshe was the most humble of men, it doesn’t mean that he was oblivious to his own talents or accomplishments. It means that Moshe was constantly aware that all of his talents and accomplishments were the result of the Ribbono Shel Olam’s munificent kindness.

This was the awareness that Moshe possessed; this was the awareness that resulted in his karnei hod; and this is the awareness that is required of all of us.

(Adapted from a drasha delivered at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Baltimore, MD. )

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