The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
The Torah speaks this week about kings, and the three temptations to which a king in ancient times was exposed. A king, it says, should avoid acquiring too many horses, too many wives, or too much wealth. (Centuries later, King Shlomo eventually fell into all three traps.) Then the Torah gives the command that every king of Israel must write out a Sefer Torah and carry it with him always, “so that he may learn to be in awe of the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not feel superior to his people or turn from the law to the right or to the left.” (Devarim 17:19-20)
Even a king, someone whom all are bound to honour, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his people” – so how much more so the rest of us! This is one of the genuine revolutions Judaism brought about in the history of spirituality. The idea that a king in the ancient world should be humble would have seemed laughable at that time. We can still today see, in the ruins and relics of Mesopotamia and Egypt, an almost endless series of vanity projects created by ancient rulers in honour of themselves. Ramses II had four statues of himself and two of Queen Nefertiti placed on the front of the Temple at Abu Simbel. At 33 feet high, they are almost twice the height of Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Washington.
This is a clear example of how spirituality makes a difference to the way we act, feel, and think. Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the centre of our world. God is.
“I am dust and ashes,” said Avraham, the father of faith. “Who am I?” said Moshe, the greatest of the prophets. Yet it was precisely at the moment Avraham called himself dust and ashes that he challenged God on the justice of His proposed punishment of Sodom and the cities of the plain. It was Moshe, the humblest of men, who urged God to forgive the people, and if not, “blot me out of the book You have written” (Shemot 32:32). Despite their humility, these were among the boldest people humanity has ever produced.
There is a fundamental difference between two words in Hebrew: anava, “humility”, and shiflut, “self-abasement”. So different are they that Rambam defined humility as the middle path between shiflut and pride. Humility is not low self-regard. That is shiflut. Humility means that you are secure enough not to need to be reassured by others. It means that you don’t feel you have to prove yourself by showing that you are cleverer, smarter, more gifted or more successful than others. You can still feel secure, because you know you live in God’s love. He has faith in you even if you do not. You do not need to compare yourself to others. You have your task, they have theirs, and that leads you to co-operate, not compete. This means that you can see other people and value them for what they are. Secure in yourself, you can value others. Confident in your identity, you can value the people not like you.
When we place the self at the centre of our universe, we eventually turn everyone and everything into a means to our ends. That diminishes them, which diminishes us. Humility means living by the light of that which is greater than me. When God is at the centre of our lives, we open ourselves up to the glory of creation and the beauty of other people. The smaller the self, the wider the radius of our world.
- Why would a king (and perhaps any kind of leader) need the law of writing a Torah scroll?
- Why is there a danger that too much humility will lead to shiflut (self-abasement)? How can we avoid this?
- How does placing God at the centre of our lives allow us to achieve humility?
It’s Not About You
by Rabbi Josh Spinner
Years ago, I went to meet the great halachic possek and teacher, Rabbi David Feinstein zt”l. I hoped to study at his yeshiva, aiming to prepare myself for a life of outreach to young Jews in Europe. I was nervous about the meeting, knowing Rabbi Feinstein was so important, and I was about to take up some of his valuable time explaining my story.
Over an hour later I emerged from Rabbi Feinstein’s office, convinced that I had met an exceptionally chatty person. We had discussed countless subjects of seemingly mutual interest. I felt happy and completely at ease, although I did wonder whether I would have time to learn enough in yeshiva, with a Head who liked chatting that much.
I came to learn quickly there was no cause for concern. Rabbi Feinstein was in fact a man of few words. My first conversation with him was our longest by far. He had spoken with me at length that first day because that was what I needed. And what I needed determined his behaviour. Like the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his first meeting with Rabbi Sacks, his humility was reflected in this behaviour.
Once he became Chief Rabbi, I had the privilege of observing Rabbi Sacks on a number of occasions in various settings: public lectures, group discussions, meetings, and dinners. He was easily capable of dominating any of those contexts with the power of his presence. And he often did. It seemed to me, however, that he was able to turn on and off the power of his presence. Whenever it was needed, he turned it on. And whenever it was not, he turned it off. This accords perfectly with this week’s message as written by Rabbi Sacks. In his words, “Humility is the self turned outward.” It is the understanding that “it’s not about you”.
It is extremely rare that a person who can dominate almost any setting with the power of his words and the clarity of his thinking, never gets carried away by this power. But Rabbi Sacks seemed to have no need to do so. He did not speak because he wanted to speak. He did not captivate a room because it made him feel good. He did so because there was a message to be delivered, a thought to be shared, a Kiddush Hashem to be made. This was true humility, and true greatness.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Rabbi Josh Spinner is the Executive Vice-President and CEO of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
A Closer Look
Rabbi Spinner now shares some of the deeper ideas he learnt from Rabbi Sacks.
Which idea in this week’s piece do you think is the most important?
This week Rabbi Sacks challenges us to examine what forms the centre of our respective worlds? If we are too self-obsessed, we are in trouble. When we can look beyond ourselves, the path to purpose and impact becomes much clearer.
Furthermore, it is easier to listen to a humble speaker, learn from a humble teacher, and follow a humble leader. In this sense, placing God at the centre of my world and thereby boxing myself out of that centre is an immense service to myself. Why would I not do that?
All too often, we focus on what God demands, rather than what God offers. This reflection on humility, on making one’s life about something other than oneself, provides a great opportunity to reflect on the huge practical upside of living life with God.
What influence did Rabbi Sacks have on your worldview?
Through the breadth of his scholarship and the clarity of his expression, Rabbi Sacks taught me that there may be many different disciplines, traditions, and perspectives, but there is only one world, one arena of human endeavour. Figuring out how to best understand, structure, and utilise this arena is therefore an effort to which countless people throughout the ages have contributed. Weaving these contributions together in a matrix of meaning the way Rabbi Sacks did almost magically with his pierces on the weekly Torah reading is therefore a deeply religious and important ability, and an aspirational one.
Question: What is not unique about the title of this week’s parsha, and why is that fact unique?
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
Shoftim is the only parsha in the Torah which has the same name as a book in Nevi’im (the book of Prophets).
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks