Friday, April 8, 2016

Who am I? The Power of Humility (Portion Metzora)

This week’s portion, Metzora, describes one of Torah’s most mysterious phenomena: the appearance of a leprous plague called tzara’at in the stones of a house.  The notion of an inorganic object being afflicted by such a malady struck some of our sages as so bizarre that they questioned whether this ever actually happened.  Some concluded: “Leprosy of houses never really existed and never will exist.”  Given the logical question that follows from this—“Then why is it in the Torah?”—the sages famously added: “Drash v’kabel s’char—Interpret it and receive reward for the act of interpretation.”

In that spirit, consider one small but significant detail in the relevant passage.  Torah teaches that the owner of the afflicted home should contact the priest who is in charge and tell him, “It seems there is a plague in the house.”  Commenting on the language here, Rashi notes: “Even if he is an expert and knows for certain that it is a plague, he should not dogmatically state that there is definitely a plague but should, rather, state: ‘It seems to me to be a plague.’”  To which another commentator, Mizrachi, adds: “A person should not be dogmatic even on something he is sure of, but rather should express certainty as a probability.  As our Rabbis instructed: Teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know.’

Certainty is dangerous, because it can so easily dull our curiosity, stifle our empathy and, ultimately, blind us to truth.  As an old bit of wisdom advises: “If you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.”   No one wants to spend much time with a know-it-all who is incapable of learning from others.  Too much certainty quashes intellectual curiosity.  Arrogance is incompatible with intellectual growth and learning. 

In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner elucidates a commentary by the Hasidic master, Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.  The subject at hand is Moses at the Burning Bush.  When God calls Moses to lead the Israelites, Moses asks, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” and God cryptically replies, “This shall be for you the sign,” without apparently specifying any signs.

Kushner writes: God does give Moses a sign says the Berditchever.  And it has been right there in plain sight all along; we just didn’t notice it.  From his native humility, Moses cannot imagine he is worthy of such a holy task.  But precisely this fear of inadequacy is the source of his true spiritual authority.  It is not an expression of unworthiness; it is a necessary qualification and precondition for the job of any would-be Jewish leader.  Your fear that you are unworthy makes you worthy.   God, in effect, says to Moses, “Your asking, ‘Who am I?’ is the sign that I’ve sent you.”

As we approach Pesach, the season of our liberation, may we remember that a healthy dose of humility can free us from the narrow-mindedness of Egyptian bondage, the state of spiritual bondage that comes with absolute certainty.  As freedom beckons, let us, like Moses, ask ourselves, Who am I?—and in so doing, open ourselves to a world of new possibilities and growth.

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