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Parshas Shavuos (5771)

Lessons We Learn From a Really Low Teacher

By Rabbi Zee

The very first Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (Ethics of our Fathers) tells of how Moses stood at Mount Sinai and received the Torah from G-d and transmitted it to Joshua, who in turn transmitted it to his disciples, on down through the generations.

The Mishnah states: “Moshe ki-bayl Torah mi'Sinai - Moses received the Torah at Sinai". However, the literal text reads, "Moses received the Torah from Sinai". For if the Mishnah meant "at Sinai" - which is the way we usually translate it - the Hebrew form should have been b'Sinai, not mi'Sinai.

I believe that the Mishnah is teaching us a valuable lesson, one that Moses himself took to heart and learned well. And that is that if we want to be receptive to Torah and the spiritual growth that accompanies it - we have to take our cue from Mount Sinai.

You see, there were many other mountains in the desert that were more majestic and awe-inspiring than Mount Sinai. It was not distinguished for its height, or for anything else, for that matter. Yet G-d chose that lowly and nondescript mountain upon which to reveal Himself and give the Torah to the Jewish nation. And from G-d's choice of Sinai, Moses learned that only those who are humble in their own eyes are fit vehicles for the Divine words of the Torah.

So, in effect, Moses received this powerful lesson on the nature of Torah growth from Sinai, the really low teacher.

You will find that this same lesson holds true till this very day. To the extent that we feel humble, recognizing that we are not "finished products", and that we yet have much to learn, we will be quite receptive to Torah and spiritual growth - be it in the form of an inspiring sermon from the Rabbi, or maybe an ordeal that we've experienced, or even in a conversation with someone older than ourselves who can give us wisdom culled from years of life experience. But if we are "full of ourselves", we end up leaving very little room in our brains and hearts for the Torah and its life-enhancing lessons to come in and do their "stuff".

The Sages compare the Torah to water in an ocean covering the depth of the sea. There are different levels to the ocean floor. The higher the bed of the sea, the less water covers it; the lower the sea bed, the more water covers it. In the same manner do the Torah and its wisdom fill a person. The smaller the ego, the more knowledge can enter; the more inflated the conceit, the less room for Torah.


In a generation when more than 70% percent of the population is on Prozac (or so they say), one can wonder if preaching humility is a good idea. These days when it seems that self-esteem is at a premium, and kids today generally aren't being made to feel too good about themselves, shouldn't we be boosting their self-confidence instead of telling them how lowly they are and how little they actually know, and that in order for them to grow spiritually, they should behave like little Mount Sinais?

The truth is that humility and low self-esteem are very different from each other, and it is most important to distinguish between them. Humility does not mean that one should be unaware of one's capacities and strengths. To do so would be denying the truth, and there is nothing commendable about falsehood. Moses knew that he was distinct from and far greater than all other prophets for all time to come. He knew that because it's in the Bible (in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Beha’alosecha): "I converse with him [Moses] directly, mouth to mouth, and he perceives the image of G-d" (Numbers 12:8).

But this unique distinction did not cause Moses to be vain. In fact, he remained more humble than any other man on earth. That's also in the Bible! It says, "The man Moses was humble, more so than any other human being on earth" (ibid. 12:3). The funny thing is - Moses actually wrote both those statements as he heard them from G-d! Now how does that work? Moses knows he's king of the prophets, the best there's ever been; yet at the same time, he is also the most humble person around! And we know that both are true because it says so in the Torah!

Obviously, there can't be any contradiction between humility and a good sense of self-worth. In fact, it is precisely due to Moses' sense of self-worth and his infinite potential for greatness that he was so humble in the first place. The more Moses grew in Torah and spirituality, the more he sensed how much more there is to learn, and how great a chasm there is between himself and the Almighty.

In other words, whereas Moses knew exactly how great was his potential, and was very clear as to where he stood among men, this same awareness of his capacity to grow made him feel humble towards his Creator and wouldn't allow him to lord over anyone else, recognizing how much more he has yet to learn. And this kind of humility, which stems from a heightened awareness of our vast potential and capacity for growth, will never breed low self-esteem and the depression it causes.


Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski, scion of a distinguished Chasidic dynasty and a pioneer in the fields of drug and alcohol addiction, wrote a wonderful book entitled Generation to Generation.

In this book, Rabbi Twerski writes how he sits in his office, and a young man or woman of sixteen or seventeen is brought in for treatment of a drug abuse problem: “Questioning elicits that for several years this beautiful child has been putting these harmful substances into his/her body. ‘Tell me,’ I ask, ‘What do you do if you are working in the kitchen and accumulate garbage? Where do you put the garbage?’ Invariably, there is a puzzled look. ‘Why, in the garbage pail, of course. Where else?’ ‘Then tell me, my child, how is it that you have been putting all this drug garbage into yourself? I'm sure you knew this stuff you were taking was all garbage, didn't you?’ It has never yet failed. Usually the tears well up, and these lovely children tell me that they had never felt good about themselves. Essentially, they saw nothing inappropriate in introducing garbage into their systems, because their perception of themselves was distorted and deflated. They thought of themselves as trash cans.”

So what's the solution? How can we pick our kids up, giving them the feeling and the confidence that they can be the greatest in whatever they choose to become in life, and yet, at the same time, not fill them with themselves to the point that they have no room left for growth and improvement? How can we give our children (and ourselves) both self-esteem and humility?

The Torah gives us the answer, and the answer is the Torah. That's right, you read that correctly! The study of the Torah will help us find the proper balance between a healthy sense of self-worth and a healthy humility which induces growth. The more we study the Torah, the more we develop an acute awareness of the Divine soul within ourselves, which, in turn, gives us a sense of our potential for greatness. Yet, the Torah constantly reminds us to be humble before G-d and man, and to remember that with that increased awareness comes a responsibility to live up to our potential, and to never become complacent in our quest for spiritual growth.

These Torah lessons are vital ingredients for producing happy, self-confident children. And it's never too early to start teaching them to our kids. My oldest daughter, Adina, attended Torah Day School of Atlanta, and each morning, before classes start, all the students would say out loud a basic truth of the Torah - one that promotes both high self-esteem and a sense of humility at the same time. The kids say all together, "G-d created us in His image. Everything I say or do must show that I am a reflection of G-d". Who knows what kind of impact these words can have on our children and their feelings of self-esteem?

[For teenagers, who are definitely way too cool to say anything like the above statement, I highly recommend an amazing book by Rabbi Akiva Tatz titled The Thinking Jewish Teenager's Guide To Life. This book has been distributed in high schools across the country, and really gives kids a sense of the depth of their own neshamos, or personalities, and opens up their minds to the infinite potential that each of them has. Adults will learn a lot from it, too!]

So, this week, on the holiday of Shavuos, when we celebrate G-d's giving His Torah to the Jewish people, let us resolve to use the powerful lessons that He included within it, and may our learning bring us a heightened sense of who we are and what we can become, and a yearning to one day get there.

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