The Servant and the Served Chaim Dauermann, Congregation Simchat Yisrael, West Haven, CT Our society is not a humble one. One only needs to briefly look at our entertainment, our advertisements, and our politics to know that this is so. In opposition to humility, humanity all too often celebrates pride. Contrary to the world, however, the Torah puts an exceedingly high value on humility.
Of this, Rav Nachman of Breslov, founder of the Breslov Hasidim, once said: “The Torah itself becomes coarse in the mouth of a man of pride.” Jewish tradition exalts humility as well, and the Talmud is full of discourse on its nature and importance. In Avodah Zarah 20b, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi holds up humility as the highest virtue, leading to the Ruach ha-Kodesh and the world to come.
Throughout Torah, we are admonished to be humble, both in the form of direct commandments, and by way of example. In Numbers 12:3 we read: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the earth.” (With Moses traditionally acknowledged as the writer of the five books of the Torah, we shall set aside, for now, the question of whether a man who would write that about himself can still qualify as being humble!) And this week’s parasha, Behar-Bechukotai, features much instruction related to humility, specifically in the form of laws governing our interactions with others in matters of status and wealth. What happens when a member of the community falls on hard times, and suddenly has very limited means? It is then that God presses us into humble service. If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God. (Lev 25:35–38 NKJV)
We find similar commands throughout the Torah: God instructs Israel not to mistreat a sojourner living among them (Lev 19:33), nor widows, nor orphans (Exod 22:22, Deut 24:17). He expects the people of Israel to provide for those who are hungry (Lev 23:22). And while, on their face, merciful acts on behalf of the less fortunate may not seem like an act of humility, the scriptures tie them together. The prophet Micah tells us, “He has told you, humanity, what is good, and what Adonai is seeking from you: Only to practice justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). And the Torah often packages its instructions for neighbourly provision with a humbling reminder: For Adonai your God is God of gods and Lord of lords —the great, mighty and awesome God, who does not show partiality or take a bribe. He enacts justice for the orphan and widow, and loves the outsider, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the outsider, for you were outsiders in the land of Egypt. (Deut 10:17–19)
In this passage and in a half-dozen other places in Torah, God reminds Bnei-Yisrael to recall their former status as foreigners or slaves in the land of Egypt. But it is not just in the giving of aid to the poor and to the stranger that we find the value of humility. These commands have a second level, just below the surface. Look again at Leviticus 25:35, this time from a different angle: “If one of your brethren becomes poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him.” This is more or less how the text is rendered in most English translations. But a more literal rendering of the Hebrew reads something more along these lines: “ . . . becomes poor, his hand has failed with you, then you are to strengthen him.”
The subtext is one of more than simply hard financial times, but of some level of incapacity as well. Weakness. While the value being put forward in the text is generosity, there is another value in view in the background: being willing to accept help from others while we are in a state of weakness can require a humble heart. To be in need is humbling, and equally humbling is the experience of relying on others to do something you’d otherwise do yourself. To support your neighbor in need, your neighbor must in turn humble himself to receive, otherwise the entire transaction falls apart. For every “humble servant,” there ideally ought to be a corresponding “humble served.”
We see this dynamic play out in how Yeshua has come to us, and how he calls us to come to him in response. Not only does he model humility for us, he also shows how it is only through humility that we can be rescued from our sin and inherit the eternal life that has been prepared for us. Yeshua came to us as the “suffering servant” described in Isaiah 53. He tells us, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt 20:28). His ministry in the first century focused on the poor, the outcast, the sick, the lame—people with no hope. When he suffered the ultimate price at his execution, he did something that we cannot do alone. In rescuing us from our sins, he has strengthened us, though our hands have failed us. The problems of sin and death are beyond our capacity to take on alone. And we must humbly ask for his help in order to receive it.
In entering into our world, Yeshua took on human flesh with all of its complexities, sufferings, and contradictions. And by entering into our experience, he embodied humility in all of its breadth as well. In Matthew 25, he gives us a glimpse of when he returns to judge the world.
Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you invited Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You? Or thirsty and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger and invite You in? Or naked and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And answering, the King will say to them, “Amen, I tell you, whatever you did to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matt 25:34–40)
Here, Yeshua casts himself not as the servant, but as the served. As his disciples, we can experience the fullness of humility through emulating his example, treating others how we would wish to be treated, yet also seeing that in serving one another, we are in fact rendering service to the Lord.
Perhaps, as we grow in this understanding, we can glimpse something of what the sages divined about humility’s importance, and its capacity to bring us nearer to God.