Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chaim Mordechai Hakohen ben Natan Yitzchak, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Avraham Yechezkel ben Yaakov Halevy, HaRav Yosef Shemuel ben HaRav Reuven Aharon, David ben Elazar Yehoshua, the refuah shlaimah of Devorah bat Chana, and Yitzhak Akiva ben Malka, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
So Pharaoh sent and called Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon, and he shaved and changed his clothes, and he [then] came to Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter for it, but I have heard it said of you [that] you understand a dream, to interpret it.” And Joseph replied to Pharaoh, saying, “Not I; G-d will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh.” (Sefer Bereishit 41:14-16, all Bible and Rashi translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
Allow me to expand upon our passage: Joseph was summoned from his dungeon of despair to come before Pharaoh, the most powerful man on the planet. The king then told him that he had heard that Joseph was capable of accurately interpreting dreams. Let us think for a moment how many of us would have responded to an omnipotent ruler. We probably would have said: “Yes, I can interpret dreams very well. In fact, your majesty, I haven’t been wrong yet! I do have a gift that is now at your service. What did Pharaoh dream? Allow me to interpret the dream’s meaning.” Instead, in one of his finest moments, Joseph completed his transformation into Yosef hatzadik (Joseph the Righteous) and declared to the monarch: “Bil’adai, Elokim ya’aneh et shalom Pharaoh” (“It is not through my wisdom [Onkelos] that I shall interpret your dreams, G-d will provide an answer that will bring peace to Pharaoh”). The singular import of these six Hebrew words cannot be overestimated; they established Yosef as the dramatis persona through whom the rest of Jewish history would begin to be realized.
Yosef could have responded in an arrogant fashion. Instead, he presented himself as the humble servant of Hakodesh Baruch Hu (the Holy One Blessed be He) and the conduit through whom G-d’s dream interpretations would flow. Yosef’s anivut (humility) proved him to be a true son of Yaakov Avinu (our father Yaakov), worthy in his own right of the mantle of leadership that would imminently be placed upon his shoulders.
How does one acquire the crucial middah (ethical characteristic) of anivut that Yosef hatzadik possessed? The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Nachmanides, 1194-1270) famously addressed the acquisition of anivut in his Iggeret HaRamban (The Letter of the Ramban):
Therefore, I will now explain to you how to always behave humbly. Speak gently at all times, with your head bowed, your eyes looking down to the ground and your heart focusing on Hashem. Don't look at the face of the person to whom you are speaking. Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer - or wiser - than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!
In all your actions, words and thoughts, always regard yourself as standing before Hashem, with His Schechinah [Divine Presence] above you, for His glory fills the whole world. Speak with fear and awe, as a slave standing before his master. Act with restraint in front of everyone. When someone calls you, don't answer loudly, but gently and softly, as one who stands before his master.
Torah should always be learned diligently, so you will be able to fulfill its commands. When you arise from your learning reflect carefully on what you have studied, in order to see what in it that you can be put into practice. Examine your actions every morning and evening, and in this way every one of your days will be spent in teshuvah (repentance). (Translation, http://www.pirchei.com/specials/ramban/ramban.htm, brackets and italics my own)
Several salient points emerge from this section of the Iggeret that can guide us toward the attainment of this moral virtue. The manner in which we communicate with others speaks volumes about us. Our interactions should reflect humility and respect for the significance of others, based upon the fundamental principle that they, too, are created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d). In addition, our minds and hearts must be focused upon Hashem, so that we recognize that we are always standing before His Divine Presence. Moreover, Torah should be learned in a diligent fashion, and in a manner that leads to meaningful practice of its precepts. The Ramban urges us to reflect upon this goal when we complete a Torah learning session, so that the Torah we have studied becomes a part of us, rather than remaining apart from us. Finally, we must undertake a twice-daily cheshbon hanefesh (spiritual accounting) of our actions and the words that we have spoken. By doing this, we can raise our self-awareness and identify those areas that require further growth.
Yosef’s anivut parallels the actions of another great leader of klal Yisrael, namely, Moshe Rabbeinu (our teacher, Moses), about whom the Torah states: “Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble (anav m’ode) more so than any person on the face of the earth.” (Sefer Bamidbar 12:3) Rashi (1040-1105) notes that Moshe’s humility was particularly manifest in his modest demeanor and the patient manner in which he interacted with others. It seems that the Ramban focused precisely upon these characteristics when he taught us how to become truly humble: “Speak gently at all times … [with] your heart focusing on Hashem. [Moreover,] consider everyone as greater than yourself.” (Brackets my own) In sum, these were two of the behaviors that Yosef hatzadik and Moshe Rabbeinu mastered, and taught us by their sterling example.
May Hashem grant each of us the wisdom and drive to develop the middah of anivut, and thereby emulate Yosef hatzadik and Moshe Rabbeinu. May we then be able to go forth and m’takane ha’olam b’malchut Shakai (improve the world under the kingship of Hashem). With the Almighty’s help, may this time come soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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*** My audio shiurim for Women on “Tefilah: Haskafah and Analysis,” may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. They are available here: http://tinyurl.com/82pgvfn.
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal