As we, here in the United States, make our way toward electing a new President, we seek meaning in past actions and behaviors of the candidates as indications as to what sort of leader this one or that one will be. We dissect and assess the candidates' policy statements, voting records, public appearances, business associations, and personal relationships in order to gain an understanding of the totality of the person and how he or she will act as our political representative.
As Jews, we sometimes find ourselves in a similar predicament. When choosing a school to send our children to, or a synagogue to attend, we look for teachers and rabbis who we feel will do the best job. But how can we know what we are really getting? How do we know that the rabbi who gives the best sermon, or who teaches the most provocative class, will also be the one to answer our halachic questions properly or give us the best spiritual guidance when we seek his counsel?
I believe we only need to look for one thing: Humility.
After high school, I spent two years studying in Israel. As my second year drew to a close, I decided to stay past the end of my yeshiva's zman and continue learning at another yeshiva whose zman lasted into the summer. The rosh yeshiva of the new yeshiva welcomed me and placed me in one of the higher shiurim, but after a couple of weeks there - and with only a month left before returning to the States - I wanted to maximize my opportunity and asked to be placed in the rosh yeshiva's shiur for the duration of my stay.
The rosh yeshiva didn't merely deny my request; he exploded at me. "My shiur!?" he bellowed in the middle of a Jerusalem street, where I had followed him out during the lunch break. "You think you're ready for my shiur!?" He went on about how difficult it was to attain placement in his shiur and how much work was involved in arriving there - but I had pretty much stopped listening at that point. He had me at "my shiur."
Those words still ring in my ears.
Even then, still a teenager, I was not disappointed or hurt or embarrassed. I was simply shocked that this rosh yeshiva - this man - could speak in such a way about himself, and about others in relation to him. He could have gently told me that he felt the shiur I was in was appropriate, that he believed his shiur would prove too difficult for me, and that with so little time left until I went home he didn't want to risk spoiling my stay. Instead, he taught me a very valuable lesson.
To this day, he is a highly-respected rosh yeshiva and a world-class talmid chacham. I can personally testify to his erudition and his hasmadah. But if that sense of self-importance is the price I would have to pay to achieve his level of Torah scholarship, I would decline. It is too high a price.
Last week's parshah does not say that Moshe was the most learned of men though he surely was; it does not say he was the most pious of men, though he certainly was that, too; it says he was the humblest of men. And for that - perhaps because of that - he spoke with G-d "face-to-face," as it were.
A few weeks back, I began attending - via satellite - the Saturday night shiur of Rav Yisroel Reisman. I had heard of the shiur and its popularity, and, due to an awful quirk in my personality, avoided it for just that reason. But one day I received a fundraising letter in the mail accompanied by a CD of one of his shiurim, and, with precious else to listen to while cleaning for Pesach, I popped it in the player.
I can't say that I was blown away by the shiur, but I appreciated it enough that when I discovered that a local shul shows a video simulcast of his shiur, I decided to try it out. Last week was the final shiur of the "season" and only the third one I attended. But even after just three lectures, listening and watching him up close (the video feed places you right in front of him; I'm told about two thousand people attend the live version), what struck me most was his humility. He sees himself not as a great rav (though he is) with a huge fan base (by Orthodox standards), but as a very fortunate Jew who is Divinely blessed with the capacity to spend his time studying and teaching Torah. For someone who could allow himself a pat on the back every now and then, he does not leak even a whiff of pretension.
Years ago, I visited Rav Shimon Schwab, zt"l, for some guidance. He responded to one question I posed to him by telling me, "you need to ask a gadol beYisrael that question." I stammered, "But I believe I am speaking now to a gadol beYisrael."
"I'm not a gadol beYisrael," he said simply. And, as nonsensical as it was, for a nanosecond I believed it. Though I do remember getting an answer to my question, after pressing a bit further, I don't recall what the answer was. Nor do I recall the question. What I really took away from that exchange was more fundamental: the picture of humility.