I dedicate this commentary to the memory of my good friend Rube, Rabbi Richard Rubinstein, who died Thursday, November 4, after a long battle with cancer. Rube exemplified humility among his many strengths and virtues, and it strikes me as no coincidence that humility is the focus for this week at rivertonmussar.org.
Man’s self-adoration is the strongest love that God implanted within [him]. Rabbi Mendel
When I was still in high school, I started smoking a pipe. It was messy and inconvenient, especially since I had to hide all the paraphernalia from my mother and her keen sense of smell. But pipe smoking seemed really cool compared to the bland habits of the bourgeoisie, and a number of my friends took it up. Once, we were discussing what kinds of pipes were better than others, and agreeing on how low-class the name-brand pipe tobaccos were. A friend who was a year or two older was listening in, and he finally said, “You guys sound just like the people who argue about who has the coolest sports car or stereo system.” He was right, of course, but human society just tends to organize itself around hierarchies—the haves and the have-nots, the insiders and the outsiders, the cool and the uncool. In contemporary America, the old hierarchies of race, social class, and wealth might be fading away, but they’re being replaced by new markers that reflect our rampant consumerism, like the size and expense of things that we own. All of these markers provide a way for us to compare ourselves to others . . . and to think that we come out on top. Thus, we feed the self-adoration that Rabbi Mendel so aptly describes.
We might think that the goal would be to refrain from comparison altogether, to help create a status-free culture in which hierarchy is irrelevant. But Scripture is at once more realistic and more radical. Status and comparison are not going away, so let’s flip them around, as Rav Shaul instructs us: “Do nothing out of rivalry or vanity; but, in humility, regard each other as better than yourselves—look out for each other’s interests and not just for your own.” (Phil 2:3-4, CJB.) Don’t just stop overvaluing yourself and competing with others for status, but start valuing others more than yourself.
Yeshua reflects this same radical realism, when he tells his twelve emissaries, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). We don’t overcome status-seeking and self-adoration by trying to drop out of the competition for status altogether. Rather, we turn the hierarchy on its head by competing for the lowliest spot, actively serving others, considering them better and more important than ourselves, and seeking their good. And, perhaps most important of all, we refrain from admiring ourselves as we do all this. Remember the words the master said to the twelve on another occasion, “When you have done everything you were told to do, you should be saying, ‘we’re just ordinary slaves, we have only done our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Humility dismantles our self-adoration with simple acts of service to others.
Check out more on humility at http://rivertonmussar.org.