Developing Humility

Nov 26, 2014
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Rabbi Cordozo, the Vietnam Vets, and Developing Humility:

The following personal anecdote, told by Rabbi Nathan Lopez Cordozo in a public lecture at Darche Noam in Jerusalem, is a sharp illustration of the Jewish approach to character development:

Rabbi Cordozo was in the hotel lobby in a city where he was to lecture, and two men approached him with the following problem. “We see you are a rabbi and maybe you can help us. We are not Jewish, but we have spoken already to clergymen of our own faith and to psychologists and have not yet received satisfactory answers, so we wanted to ask you. We were young religious, upright Americans when drafted and sent overseas to fight in the Vietnam War. Basic training went ok, but the problems began when the commanders told us we’d actually have to go attack a certain Vietnamese area. It was unthinkable for us to take a gun and kill a person, and at first we refused. That of course was not acceptable — after all, we were in the army — and we had to shoot. At first it was difficult and strange, but eventually we became proficient, and it even became kind of a sport for us to pick off the enemy. It reached a point that we could take a human life with total numbness, with no remorse, revulsion or other negative feelings.

“Even after we were sent home to the US, the numbness remained. We know that we have the ability to walk out into the street, kill someone, and not feel anything. Of course we know murder is against the law and that the police would put us in jail, so we don’t do it. But we would like to change that lack of inner sensitivity. As we said, we have not yet received a satisfactory answer. Do you have any advice for us?”

Rabbi Cordozo said that he thought a moment and then said, “You say that you started out as religious and upright citizens, and then through your experiences in the war you lost the sensitivity to human life you once had. We have an old Jewish teaching that goes, “One’s heart follows his actions.” That seems to have worked for you until now in a negative direction, constant killing developed an inner callousness. The solution might be to use the same power in a positive direction. Go out and do good things for people — volunteer with the elderly, in a hospital, with poor children. At first it will seem strange and artificial, but eventually it will leave its mark on your character and you should find yourselves becoming more and more sensitive.”

Developing Humility
What can we do to help develop humility? What action associated with humility can we use to apply the Cordozo approach to developing this character trait?

It could be that such an act is already built into the laws of prayer. The halakha directs us to bow at the beginning and end of the first blessing of the silent prayer and to do the same at the beginning and end of the 17th (Modim). Bowing is an act of humility.

The Kedushat Levi (Rosh Hashana — quoted in Netivot Shalom vol. 1, p. 299) explains that bowing on Yom Kippur involves nullifying one’s whole being to the Almighty. This is the source of the atonement Yom Kippur brings — total consciousness of total dependence on G-d, of nothingness before Him. The Netivot Shalom explains: The source of sin is a sense of separateness from G-d, so nullification brings about atonement.

The Gemara in Berakhot (34a,b) bears this out, with a halakha that is not practically applicable nowadays, but is very revealing about the meaning behind bowing. We bow only at the beginning and end of the 1st and 17th blessings of Shemoneh Esrei. The amoraim argue about when the Kohein Gadol (High Priest) and the King were to bow. One opinion holds that the Kohein Gadol bows at the beginning of every blessing and the King at the beginning and end of every blessing (Rav Shimon ben Pazi, in the name of Rav Yehoshua ben Levi in the name of Bar Kappara). The other holds that the Kohein Gadol bowed at the beginning and end (see Gra) of every blessing and the King would bow at the beginning of prayer and only get up at the end, just like King Shlomo did in his prayer recorded in Melachim I 8 (Rav Yitzchak bar Nachmani). Both agree, though, that a person bow in a way directly related to his status. The special high status of these two figures (see the second chapter of Sanhedrin) demands excessive humility on their part. The Torah (Devarim 17:19,20), especially fearful of the King lapsing into arrogance, cautioned him to write a special Torah scroll for himself, have it with him, and read in it constantly, “So he should not become arrogant (literally, so his heart should not become lofty).” Following the Torah’s lead, the sages instituted more intensive bowing for those in high positions who might have a tendency for arrogance.

Perhaps this extra bowing is not only an expression of their special closeness to G-d (see the Maharal in Netivot Olam, Netiv Haavoda, chapter 10), but an attempt to help them strengthen and develop their humility before G-d.

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