B’MIDBAR (Numbers, 1:1-4:20)/SHAVUOS — “Humility vs. Self-Esteem”


Next Thursday night is the beginning of the Holiday of Shavuos.  Shavuos commemorates the day, 50 days after the Exodus from Egypt, when G-d gave us the Torah.

For more on Shavuos click here or here.

“Humility vs. Self-Esteem” (2003)

Life is filled with contradictions.  We are told to be humble.  Then the Torah tells us how great we are, having been created in G-d’s image.

Nachmanides, AKA the Ramban, writes (on Numbers, 1:45) that when Moses took a census of the nation to determine the size of his fighting force, he did it in a seemingly inefficient fashion.  Rather than asking each family for a headcount, he was required to meet each and every member of each and every family.

My Rebbe, Rav Henoch Leibowitz, Shlit”a explains that Moses wanted to give honor to every member of the Nation of Israel.  He wanted every individual to understand that he was more than just a number.  Every person is unique and special, not just an anonymous digit in a census.  Every person was given the honor of a personal introduction to Moses.  What an uplifting experience!  It surely made them feel very important.

Contrast this with the following Midrash: “‘G-d spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert.’  Numbers, 1:1-4:20) . . . This teaches us that a person who doesn’t make himself Hefker like a desert cannot acquire wisdom and Torah.  That is why it says, ‘ . . . in the Sinai Desert.’” (Midrash Rabbah, B’Midbar, 1)

The word “Hefker” means “ownerless.”  If a person declares his possessions to be Hefker, anyone can come along and claim them as their own.  This Midrash is telling us that the only way a person can truly acquire the wisdom of the Torah is by devaluing himself.  He must nullify his ego and personality to the dictates of the Torah.  I am unimportant.  MY opinion is irrelevant; what counts is what the Torah says.  I am insignificant.  It is G-d Who tells me how to live my life.


How do we reconcile these concepts?  On the one hand, we have a Midrash that tells us to ignore our own opinions and subjugate our thoughts and opinions to Divine will.  On the other hand, we have Moses on a self-esteem-building mission, making every Israelite appreciate his own greatness.  Which one is correct?

Both.  Moses was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth.   (Numbers, 12:3) That is not contradicted by the statement that . . . No other prophet has arisen in Israel, who knew G-d face to face, (who could bring) the signs and miracles that G-d sent him to display in the Land of Egypt . . . (Deuteronomy, 34:10,11).

Moses knew that he was the greatest prophet that had ever lived.  This did not diminish his humility.  He was humble because he did not credit himself for his greatness.  Rather, he recognized that G-d had granted him greater potential, and often wondered whether he had used that potential to its fullest.

Rabbi Akiva tells us in the Talmud (Avos, 3:18) that “Man is dear (to G-d), by virtue of the fact that he was created in (G-d’s) image.  A greater level of endearment is indicated by the fact that IT WAS MADE KNOWN TO HIM that he was created in (G-d’s) image.”

In other words, G-d bestowed one level of kindness by creating us in His image.  By telling us in the Torah (Genesis, 9:6) that we are created in His image, He performed an even greater act of kindness.  Now that we KNOW our tremendous potential, we are all the more obligated to strive to meet that potential.

Self-esteem is not a lack of humility; arrogance is.  Self-esteem is recognizing one’s potential.  Humility is what drives us to continually climb and strive to meet that potential.  Arrogance is what can fool us into accepting mediocrity by thinking that we have already made it to the top.

Have a great Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz

To leave a comment about this article, or to read other readers’ comments on this article, scroll down past the archive links.


From the Archives

“Can Familiarity Breed CONTENT?” (2010)

A fellow came up to me in Shul recently and asked, “Why is it so hard to pray with feeling?”

… I studied at a Yeshiva in Israel for six years.  Then I left Israel, not to return for twenty years.  Ten  years ago, I went back…

I went to the Kotel.  The Western Wall, the sole remnant of a magnificent Temple of G-d that the Romans destroyed two thousand years ago; a Temple that we pray every day to see rebuilt.  ATemple over which our People have shed millions of tears for thousands of years.

As Jewish Law requires, I tore my shirt the same way a mourner does at the funeral of a loved one.  I stood there at the ruins of our Temple in my torn shirt looking like a mourner.  But you know what?  Deep down, I didn’t FEEL like a mourner!

I couldn’t understand it.  At the Tombs of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs I was overcome with emotion.  Why was the site of our destroyed Temple different?

I’m a religious Jew.  I pray every day for the Messiah to come and for the Temple to be rebuilt.  I fast every Tisha B’Av, and join my People in mourning for the Temple.   Why did I not feel the same, deep emotions that I felt at those other places?

I don’t know for sure, but I have a theory…

Read more.


“How do I Love Thee?  Let me Count the DAYS” (2009)

… Picture a wealthy man sitting in his treasure house counting his money.  How many times does he need to count?  He already knows, from the first count, how much he has.  Why does he continue?

Because he loves his money!!  Every gold and silver coin jingles as it drops back into the money bag.  He is so caught up with his love of money that he just sits there counting it, again and again and again.

That’s how much G-d loves you.  He adores you, His precious and beloved child!  Therefore He counts us, again and again and again.

We, too, have been counting…

Read more.


“Hair Today — Gone Tomorrow!” (2004)

… Reuters listed the story in its “Oddity” category, citing a “ritual ban” by “an ultraorthodox sage.”  … The New York Times, that bastion of Jewish anti-semitism, examined the human-interest and business ramifications of the ban.  NewsRadio WCBS described a “demonstration” in Brooklyn.

Everything I read or heard in the media seemed to suggest a fringe (pun intended!) fanatic group of religious fundamentalists reacting with intolerance toward the beliefs and practices of others.  Chat rooms all over the web abounded with obnoxious off-color comments and jokes.

What’s going on?  The issue revolves around a temple in India where pilgrims offer their hair to a Hindu deity.  This hair is then sold as a fund-raiser for the temple.  Apparently, some of this hair has found its way into the wigs worn by religious Jewish women.  Rabbinic leaders have declared these wigs unusable, due to having been used for idolatrous practices.

The media are going to town, describing Jewish women in a frenzy, lost without their precious wigs.  The news reporters especially enjoy telling us about group “wig burnings.”  Can’t you just envision the mob scene, as wide-eyed “ultraorthodox fanatics” launch the offensive hairpieces onto the raging pyre? …

Read more.


“Humility vs. Self-Esteem” (2003)

Life is filled with contradictions.  We are told to be humble.  Then the Torah tells us how great we are…

Read more.


“Legacy Building” (2002)

I’ll never forget that night…February 14, 1979.  It was the evening when I first met the young lady who would eventually become my bride…

Rabbi Kagan, the leader of world Jewry, was, at the time, quite old. He asked the young man if he was a Kohain. The young man replied that he was not. “Why not?” asked the sage. “Because my father’s not a Kohain.” “Why not?” “Because HIS father wasn’t a Kohain.”

Once the youth was sufficiently confused by the interrogation, the Chofetz Chaim explained his point…

Read more.


“Marching Orders” (2001)

… After the Nazis invaded the small village of Klausenberg, they began to celebrate in their usual sadistic fashion…The officer became enraged. He lifted his rifle above his head and sent it crashing on the head of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe fell to the ground. There was rage in the officer’s voice.  “Do you still think you are the Chosen People?” he yelled.

Once again, the Rebbe nodded his head and said, “Yes, we are.” The officer became infuriated. He kicked the rebbe in the shin and repeated. “You stupid Jew, you lie here on the ground, beaten and humiliated. What makes you think that you are the Chosen People?”…

Read more.


This is the weekly message at www.torahtalk.org.   Copyright © 2000-2011 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (www.Brisrabbi.com) and chaplain inMonsey,New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on May 29, 2003 at 7:09 am  Leave a Comment  

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