Rabbi Lazer GurkowRabbi Eliezer (Lazer) Gurkow, currently serving as rabbi of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario, is a well-known speaker and writer on Torah issues and current affairs.
Sense of Self
Is pride a dirty word? It’s often listed alongside lust and greed, but is it really bad? I suppose it depends on what you are proud of. If you have Jewish pride, if you take pride in your Jewishness, it isn’t altogether bad, but if you take pride in yourself, it can be problematic. Not sinful, mind you, just problematic. It can lead to hubris.
Rabbi Manis Friedman once told me that self-esteem means to know and value your strengths, ego means to artificially inflate your value.
You might know that you are humble and say so candidly. So long as you don’t mean to boast, you can be honest about it. Most people assume that if you were truly humble, you wouldn’t mention it. But this isn’t always so. If, when you say, “I am humble,” your focus is on the “I”, that’s not good - you are showing off and that’s arrogance. If you focus on the “am humble,” that is good. If you are making a point not germane to you, it is honesty.
You can be a powerful leader, who stands unflinching before millions without an ounce of insecurity or doubt. And at the same time you can be the humblest person in the room. This is because your strength isn’t rooted in self-pride, it is rooted in the cause. You know that you are needed as a leader and you respond. You aren’t there to boost your ego and you don’t experience a rush of personal pride. You are devoted to the cause and respond to what is necessary.
Hillel was one such example. He was the leader of his generation and the most revered scholar of his time, but when he heard that a recently impoverished man was in need of a particular service that he could no longer afford, Hillel provided it himself.
Even if Hillel felt that the man was entitled to such support, did Hillel need to provide it in person? The answer is that Hillel never worried about such things. If others were available to provide the service, Hillel would be available to teach Torah. If there was no one available to provide the service, Hillel wouldn’t stand on ceremony. He would get up and do it.
This is because Hillel wasn’t an arrogant leader. He was a powerful leader, an opinionated leader, a charismatic leader, but he wasn’t an arrogant leader. True leaders are responsive to their followers. What their followers need, they provide. The followers aren’t there to glorify their leaders. The leaders are there because the followers need them. That is humility.
The strengths required for leadership are not at all in conflict with humility. Because contrary to popular opinion, humility isn’t about putting yourself down. It’s about setting yourself aside. To put others ahead of you, is to set yourself aside. You can be talented, brilliant, capable and wise, and still set yourself aside. In fact, by setting yourself aside, you feel the plight of others and help them. By contrast, putting yourself down, handicaps your strengths and paralyzes rather than motivates.
A Real Life Example
Several weeks ago I traveled to Alpharetta, Georgia to attend a memorial for Rebbetzin Rashi Minkowitz OBM, wife of my former classmate, Rabbi Hirshy Minkowitz. As can be expected, the large room was crowded with thousands, who came to mourn the tragic and premature passing of their Rebbetzin.
Rabbi Minkowitz rose and spoke for thirty minutes. He moved the audience to laughter and tears and, through it all, displayed incredible leadership qualities. His remarks focused almost exclusively on the needs of others. He talked about what he intended to do for his children. He laid out plans for his community. He unveiled a number of ambitious community initiatives in memoriam of the Rebbetzin.
We know that Hirshy was a broken man, when he stood before us that night, but you would never know it from his demeanor or smile. You would never know it from the way he treats his children and looks after his community. On that night and throughout, Hirshy displayed incredible leadership qualities.
Later that night, at an informal gathering of friends, Hirshy insisted that there was nothing heroic about his response. He summed it up in four words, “I Have No Choice.” My children and community need me.
I told him that setting the “I” aside, is precisely what we mean when we speak of humility. Most people are so caught up with the huge hole left in the “I” that though they know the next three words, they don’t and can’t allow them to resonate. Hirshy, passed over the “I” and focused on the, “Have no choice.” He set himself aside and focused on those, who depend on him. That is humility.
Yet, it is a humility clothed in awesome strength. It is a humility that hums with poweramd expresses qualities of leadership. It is a humility filled with charm and driven by purpose. This is true humility.
We now understand why the Torah was given on a mountain, yet of all mountains G-d chose Sinai. Our sages taught that Sinai was chosen because it was smaller than all other mountains. G-d chose the smallest mountain to teach us a lesson in humility. Yet, G-d didn’t give the Torah in a valley, which would have taught true lowliness. He gave it on a mountain because humility doesn’t mean lowliness.
A mountain represents fierce determination, firm resolve and proud inner strength. Yet, this strength isn’t about us, it is about the Torah. It isn’t for ourselves, it is for G-d. It is G-d’s mountain. G-d’s pride and G-d’s strength.
The name of this week’s Torah portion is Behar, On The Mountain. It refers of course to Mount Sinai where the Torah was given. Yet, the name isn’t, Behar Sinai, On Mount Sinai, the name is Behar, On The Mountain. This name implies that to study, teach and observe the Torah one must be laced with inner strength and firm resolve, one must stand tall and immovable like a mountain.
Just the same, you and I both know that this mountain is Mount Sinai. This strength belongs to G-d. It isn’t pride in ourselves or determination for its own purpose. Our pride, strength and determination are wrapped up with G-d. It isn’t an arrogant strength, it’s a humble strength. It isn’t an arrogant pride, it’s a humble pride.
It isn’t my pride, it is G-d’s pride. In the Jew, in the Torah and in His own greatness.
 See Rabbi Yosef’s statement in Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 49b,” I am humble.”
 Babylonian Talmud: 67b.
 Midrash Tehilim 68: 17 and Babylinian Talmud Megillah 29a.
 Likutei Sichos v. 1 pp 276 - 279