Only last week we read of the Jewish people’s multiple misdemeanours and acts of individual and collective rebellion during its 40 years in the desert (the necessity of which was itself the result of an act of idolatry.) Far from being a perfect people we seem to have constantly ‘tested’ G-d’s patience and raised serious doubts as to our suitability as a people entrusted with the role of perfecting the world and being a ‘light unto the nations.’ Why then do we find this ‘special relationship’ between the Jewish people and G-d enduring?

Why did G-d not simply change sides and opt for a more suitable group to carry out this immense task?

The slightly surprising answer is found in this week’s parsha – our saving grace is our most crucial attribute of humility. When Moshe makes a final impassioned plea through prayer to be allowed to enter the Land of Israel he recognises his own inadequacies. He does not make his request based on his own merits and chievements, but appeals to G-d for an undeserved gift, an act of Divine mercy. One would think that Moshe of all people, a human being who had attained an unparalleled connection to spirituality and who had give up his own sense of self entirely to lead the Jewish people would have been in a position to make his plea based on his many merits, for an earned gift. Yet Moshe never allowed himself to develop any sense of ego. He rather recognised his remaining imperfections and his reliance on G-d’s mercy as the only possible means to being permitted to enter Israel.

This extreme expression of humility was not confined to Moshe; later in the parsha G-d expresses this trait of humility – of never allowing one’s successes, achievements and power to feed and inflate one’s ego – as the ingredient which was the key to the Jewish people’s uniqueness. Whilst other world leaders were portraying themselves as deities and creating inflated self-images which they themselves came to actually belief in, Avraham was declaring himself “dust and ash.” This was the only distinguishing factor which, despite all of our many errors, ensured a permanence of relationship between us and G-d.

This trait of humility is described by Nachmanides as ‘the greatest of all traits.’ The Torah, clearly in recognition of the potential for abuse and arrogance that comes with power, specifically warns any Kings of Israel against getting caught up in that power and influence. A King was obligated to carry a Torah scroll with him at all times from which he would have to read daily in order to ensure that he never lost perspective of his limits and finity.

Practically speaking what is the message of the Torah’s highlighting of humility as the most crucial of all human traits? Should we all seek to emulate our greatest leaders by viewing ourselves as ‘dust and ash’ totally undeserving of anything? Absolutely not! A lack of self-esteem and sense of personal worth and significance is the greatest hindrance and obstacle to our achieving personal greatness. Every person is a unique creation, enthused with a Divine soul. Every one of us has a distinctive role to play in bringing the world to its necessary intended purpose that we, and only we, can fulfil. The Talmud, in light of this, says ‘Each and every person is obligated to say ‘The world was created on account of me’ – this is not an option but an obligation. Only with this realisation – that we are all equally indispensable parts of G-d’s creation – can we truly attempt to fulfil our potential and reach the heights intended for every one of us. So where then does the balance lie – How can one reconcile the need to view himself as ‘dust and ash’ dependent on Divine gifts for his survival and success, whilst retaining the necessary mindset that he is an indispensable creation without which the world cannot be complete?

The answer lies in appreciating the lives led by the very Jewish greats whose apparent acts and statements of self-deprecation are viewed as the paradigm of humility. Avraham labelled himself ‘dust and ash’ yet had the conviction and confidence to ideologically conquer the world despite the difficulties and trials that such a battle raised. Moshe questioned his own achievements yet confronted the most powerful leader in the world, Pharoah, to demand the freedom of his people. Later he became the teacher of the entire Jewish people and bore the burdens of that people that came with such a role.

And how did they find the balance? They recognised what once you realise you can achieve nothing you can actually achieve anything. For as long as one erroneously attributes his achievements and power to himself, then his potential is (at most) bound by those very finite set of attributes. Only with the realisation that every success and every blessing is a gift from G-d does the realm of possibilities become unlimited. Given Avraham and Moshe’s recognition of this fact, nothing fazed them – the prospect of taking on the world and bearing the burden of an entire nation were no more or less burdensome than seemingly far lesser tasks.

The Kotzke Rebbi, in dealing with this apparent paradox, suggested every person should always carry two pieces of paper – in one pocket he should have written down ‘I am nothing but dust and ash’ and in the other ‘The world was created for me.’ When he senses a moment of arrogance he should pull out the first piece of paper and when intimidated by an otherwise insurmountable task he should pull out the second. So practically speaking the key to our success both morally and in terms of achieving that which appears unachievable is to maintain a sense of both our own indispensability and yet at the same time retain a strong sense of our own finity and the humility which will naturally result.

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