Parshas B’haalosecha

"Now the man Moshe was very humble, more than all the men on the face of the earth.” (Bamidbar 12:3) 

“Be very, very humble.” (Avos 4:4) 

How is the middah of arrogance different from the other middos that the Tanna had to repeat a word when exhorting us to go to the other extreme, and say, “Be very, very humble?” 

Arrogance and chasing after honor have something that all other middos don’t. It’s known that it’s impossible to evaluate the worth of a mitzvah in This World because the entire world isn’t sufficient reward for even one mitzvah. The Rishonim explain that when a person is being coerced to transgress a negative commandment, he’s required to spend all his money not to transgress it. The Torah doesn’t disclose the reward for positive commandments, the Ramban explains, for reimbursement in This World is physical. Therefore, nothing in This World can provide reward for mitzvos, which are spiritual.

I knew a girl who slept at her grandmother’s every night for a year and a half. There were no rotations, no other granddaughters. Everyone else had a good reason why they couldn’t do it, so this girl was left alone with the big job. She’d get there at 10 p. m. and had to be quiet, for her grandmother was sleeping. In that quiet house, dragging a shoe sounded like the rumble of a tractor. While her friends were on the phone late into the night, this girl would study quietly with half-closed eyes. 

There were extracurricular activities, school trips and overnights, birthday parties. But not for her. She was always with her grandmother. Then one day, her grandmother was hospitalized, the beginning of a stay of many years. 

The devoted granddaughter was already a young mother when the grandmother passed away. I was at the shivah house and saw how no one remembered the year and a half she’d spent at her grandmother’s house. The years in the hospital had made them forget, made her time there no longer significant. What had she done there anyway? Sleep? 

A year and a half. Every night. Giving up her evenings and time with friends. Giving up her own bed. The responsibility and devotion. All turned to smoke that had wafted out the window long ago. No one paid her for it, not in compliments or gifts, nor in applause or looks of admiration. And precisely because of that she merited the complete reward of the mitzvah. 

However, when one receives honor for a mitzvah in This World, even though it’s false honor, it’s still part of the reward, since all honor is spiritual. Even though honor isn’t a “currency” accepted in the marketplace, people still spend thousands for false honor, for one feels a spiritual satisfaction when honored publicly for great wisdom or great wealth. This is a physical form of spiritual reward in place of lofty spirituality. 

Everyone needs some appreciation to refill their tank on this tiring journey called life. We yearn for the balm of a good word. We seek a bit of recognition, for without it we can’t go on. But there times when we’re disappointed to discover that no one’s really excited over what we did and we’re not mentioned publicly or given thanks. 

At moments like that, it’s worth remembering that honor is the least lucrative deal in the world. They did us a favor by not paying us in the currency of Olam Haba, by not paying us on credit from that account reserved for us in Heaven. Instead, our reward remains ours, saved up in its entirety. 

So that we don’t fall in this trap, and thereby have our merits diminished, the Tanna warned us to be on guard against the evil of arrogance and honor. For as mentioned, honor, which is spiritual, is liable to be received as payment for mitzvos, which are spiritual. 

If a person is rewarded in This World with praise and accolades, he’ll arrive in Heaven destitute and bare, and won’t receive anything for all his toil. Therefore, they said, “Be very, very humble.” Flee from honor as one flees from fire lest you end up completely impoverished in the World to Come (ibid. ). 

One day, when we’re surrounded with spiritual wealth, we’ll be thankful we didn’t choose the early payment plan.