Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XIII, p. 30ff.

The concluding mishnah of the tractate of Sotah emphasizes the pattern of spiritual descent that accompanied the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash. It mentions several Sages and underscores how they served as paradigms for various spiritual qualities, but relates that when those Sages died, these spiritual qualities — at least as expressed in a complete sense — were no longer manifest. The mishnah concludes stating, “When Rebbi (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi) died, humility and the fear of sin were nullified.”

The Gemora discusses the different points of the mishnah and concludes:

Rav Yosef told the Sage relating the mishnah, “[When speaking of Rebbi,] do not say [that] humility [was nullified], for I exist.” (“And I am humble,” Rashi.) Rav Nachman told the Sage relating the mishnah, “[When speaking of Rebbi,] do not say [that] the fear of sin [was nullified], for I exist.”

This narrative raises several conceptual difficulties. First and foremost, on the surface, Rav Yosef’s statement: “Do not say [that] humility [was nullified], for I exist,” hardly appears to epitomize humility.

Also, Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman were contemporaries and were aware of each other’s greatness.1 Why didn’t they tell the sage reading the mishnah to eliminate the entire clause, taking into consideration, not only their own personal virtues, but also the positive qualities that the other possessed?

And we find that Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair states:2 “Humility leads to the fear of sin.” How could Rav Nachman see himself as a paradigm of the higher quality — fear of sin — and yet consider the necessary prerequisite for the attainment of that quality, humility, as “nullified”?3

To focus on the first of the difficulties which was raised: The definition of humility is not, as is popularly conceived, a sense of meekness and low self-image in which a person has no sense of his own worth.4 Instead, a true sense of humility is complemented by self-assurance. The person radiates confidence and self-esteem, but has no trace of arrogance or boastful pride. He knows his personal virtues, exercises them productively, and yet this does not lead to egotism or haughtiness.

We see this fusion exemplified by Moshe, our teacher. He himself told the Jewish people:5 “It is I who stands between G‑d and you,” and it was he who wrote the verse:6 “And there never arose in Israel a prophet like Moshe.” Nevertheless, he was “more humble than all the men on the face of the earth.”7

Moshe did not see pride and humility as conflicting tendencies.8 Although he knew the greatness of the mission he had been given, and realized that he had been granted unique personal traits to enable him to fulfill this mission, this knowledge did not lead to ego-conscious pride. On the contrary, he realized that he had been endowed with these potentials by G‑d; they were not the fruit of his own efforts. Moreover, he believed that if these gifts had been given to another, that person might have achieved even more than he.9

For this reason, Moshe humbled himself before all those who approached him.10 Nevertheless, when it was necessary for him to exercise his authority, he did so with all the force and power required.

Similar concepts can be explained with regard to Rav Yosef. He too was aware of his virtues, but saw them as trusts endowed to him by G‑d and realized that perhaps another person could have administered these trusts more effectively. And just as his appreciation of his other virtues did not lead to pride, so too, he was able to remain humble despite his awareness of his own humility.

This conception is also reflected in the phrase which Rav Yosef chose to express his own self-image:11 “Many harvests are reaped through the power of an ox.” An ox has nothing to be proud of, for the harvests are not the product of his labor. They stem from the power of growth contained within the seeds and within the earth. The ox is merely an intermediary whose efforts enable this power of growth to be harnessed and put to use.

Similar concepts are reflected in the term used to describe Rav Yosef:12 “the master of wheat.” The implication is that the advantage is that the wheat — allegorically referring to the breadth of Torah knowledge Rav Yosef possessed — is a valuable resource. Rav Yosef is praised merely for being a fit reservoir for this resource to be stored.13

There is, however, still room for question: Through studying the Torah, a person protects himself from the influence of the evil inclination and thus shields himself from sin. The attainment of this status was seemingly Rav Yosef’s own personal achievement and did not come automatically, as a result of the potentials he was granted from above. Therefore he had ample justification for pride.

It can, however, be explained that — in protecting a person from sin — the Torah does not necessarily change the person’s nature. According to Rav Yosef, when a person studies the Torah, he may remain who he is, the Torah merely exerts a protective influence from above. Therefore a person should rightfully be humble even though his Torah studies cause him to be protected from sin. For the fact that he is protected from sin does not represent a personal achievement. Instead, it is still considered as a result of the influence which he is granted from above.

On this basis, we can also understand why Rav Nachman considered the quality of humility to have been nullified, although he was aware of Rav Yosef and his virtues. Rav Nachman maintains that the study of the Torah changes the nature of the person, and it is because of this inner transformation that he is protected from sin. This inner transformation can be considered as the person’s own achievement and a just reason for pride.14

Using similar reasoning, we can appreciate why Rav Yosef did not acknowledge Rav Nachman’s fear of sin. The Talmud relates15 that an astrologer told Rav Nachman’s mother that her son would become a thief. Frightened over the fate of her child, she had him cover his head at all times so that he would be possessed by the fear of Heaven, and she prayed that the evil inclination would not take control of him. Once, his headcovering fell, and his evil inclination overpowered him.

Accordingly, Rav Yosef maintained that fear of sin was not an integral part of Rav Nachman’s being, but rather an incremental factor dependent on his head being covered and his mother’s prayers. Hence just as Rav Yosef did not attach importance to the fact that he himself was protected from sin by his Torah study, he did not consider Rav Nachman’s fear of sin sufficient to amend the mishnah to say that the fear of sin had not been nullified.

Rav Nachman, by contrast, maintained that even though at the outset his fear of sin had been caused by external factors, afterwards, these qualities became internalized. Thus he justly felt that his own conduct was noteworthy enough for the mishnah to be amended so that it would not mention the fear of sin being nullified.

We thus see that Rav Nachman maintains that even though at the outset certain qualities may be incremental to a person’s nature, ultimately they can become internalized to the extent that they characterize his personality. Rav Yosef, by contrast, maintains that an external factor can never be more than that. Although it may affect a person’s conduct and control his habits, it does not change his nature.

This difference in approach is reflected in a difference of opinion between these Sages with regard to a point of halachah.16 It is forbidden to recite the Shema near urine unless one pours water into it. All authorities agree that if a utensil already contains urine, it is necessary to pour a revi’is of water into it to nullify the urine’s presence. When, however, a utensil is empty, and water is poured into it, and then urine, there is a difference between [the opinions of] Rav Nachman and Rav Yosef. Rav Nachman maintains that if the water precedes the urine, then any amount of water — even less than a revi’is — is sufficient to nullify the influence of the urine. Rav Yosef, by contrast, maintains that it makes no difference whether the water precedes the urine or not, at least a revi’is of water is always necessary.

What is the difference between the two opinions? Rav Nachman maintains that if the water is poured into the container first, it brings about a fundamental change. Although the water itself is an increment, the fact that it is poured into the container first makes a difference, and it affects the container’s future status. Rav Yosef does not accept this principle and maintains that the standard quantity of water is required at all times.

To apply these concepts to the previous discussion: Rav Nachman maintains that external factors — e.g., wearing a headcovering or studying Torah — can make a fundamental change in a person’s nature. Therefore, he describes himself as fearing sin, and does not think it appropriate to describe Rav Yosef as humble. Rav Yosef, by contrast, maintains that external factors will not bring about internal change. Therefore, he does not consider Rav Nachman as fearing sin, and considers it appropriate to describe his own self as humble.

There still remains a difficulty to be resolved: It was explained that Rav Nachman did not consider Rav Yosef to be humble, because Rav Yosef had a virtue that he had attained through his own efforts. For this reason, the concept that all his virtues came as trusts from above and another person could have administered them more effectively did not apply to him. If this argument is true, how could the mishnah ascribe humility to Rebbi and the Torah ascribe humility to Moshe: surely they — like Rav Yosef — possessed positive virtues which they attained through their own efforts?

This question can be resolved by citing two conceptions of humility offered by our Sages.17 As mentioned previously, Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair states: “Humility leads to the fear of sin,” implying that he considers the fear of sin as a greater virtue. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, by contrast, maintains that humility is a greater virtue than the fear of sin.

It can be explained that the Sages are not disagreeing. Instead, each one is referring to a different level of humility.18 There is one level of humility that is a function of logic. Based on a particular set of reasons, e.g., the reasons mentioned above — that we have been endowed with our potentials by G‑d, and if these gifts had been given to another person, he might have achieved even more, a person appreciates that he should be humble. There is, however, a deeper approach to humility, one that is not dependent on logical conclusions, but which comes from an inner sense of selflessness.

What is the source for this potential? The humility of G‑d Himself, as our Sages comment:19 “In the place of the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility.”

G‑d’s humility is not motivated by any reason, but rather is a fundamental element of His being. “The righteous resemble their Creator,”20 and thus humility of this nature is mirrored in certain great tzaddikim, for example, Moshe our teacher,21 and Rebbi. Rav Nachman maintained, however, that in the era of exile, such humility was no longer possible.22

There is, however, a positive connection between the descent into exile and humility. All the revelations of that future era are dependent on our Divine service in the era of exile.23 Thus it is this descent and the Divine service of the Jewish people, despite the challenges of exile, which will lead to the fulfillment of the prophecy:24 “The humble shall increase their joy in G‑d,” with the coming of the Redemption. May this take place in the immediate future.