Probably the most common reaction to hearing about lowliness as a virtue is to shun the idea as “too meek.” From experience, the argument goes, it is only those who have a somewhat inflated ego who actually “make it” in life. Like one Jewish American lawyer puts it, you have to have chutzpah to get ahead. Supposedly, the argument continues, just as you need chutzpah to be successful materially, you need the same to really get things done, even if they are for the sake of religion, for the sake of God. You cannot open a successful Chabad House, or get people interested in Judaism unless you have a “get up and go get ‘em” attitude. But such an attitude is seemingly opposite from the state of lowliness that we have been describing. So which is it: should we be lowly and suffer from lethargy and incompetence, or should we strive to be energetic and successful, but suffer from an over aggrandized sense of ego?
The answer to this dilemma lies in one of the most beautiful teachings1 that we have from the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement. Of the 613 commandments given to us in the Torah, only a fraction can be performed today when we do not have a Holy Temple in Jerusalem . Yet, the Torah (and all its commandments) is eternal and universal. This presents something of a paradox. For, even in the time that the Holy Temple stood in all its glory in Jerusalem , not every one of the 613 commandments was applicable to every single person. Some commandments are for priests (cohanim) alone, some for Levites, some for people who own cattle, etc. The answer to this paradox, explained the Ba’al Shem Tov, lies with the symbolic, spiritual value that every commandment carries together with its normative value. One of the commandments, which was performed only 9 times so far in the history of the world is that of the preparation of the Red Heifer.2 The ash of the Red Heifer is prescribed by the Torah as the purifier from ritual defilement, something that every person experiences when coming in contact with death or its related states. Yet, though the ash of the Red Heifer purifies an impure person on whom it is sprinkled, paradoxically, it defiles a pure person who comes in contact with it.
When asked how this commandment and its inherent paradoxical affect of both purification and defilement applies universally and eternally, the Ba’al Shem Tov explained that ritual defilement symbolizes being distant from G-d, while ritual purity symbolizes nearness to the Almighty. Before engaging in good deeds, before deciding to pursue a relationship with the Almighty, we are all far from Him. In order to get interested in doing good it has to be exciting by allowing us to envision that it will make us “better people” or even by promising us rewards for our “dedication.” Being initially far (“defiled”) prevents us from embarking upon the path of goodness and holiness. At this moment the only way to “approach” G-d, and take action, is by toiling for some reward or benefit that will come from doing the good deed. At this moment, the only way to get excited about doing something is through a tiny bit of ego (an amount called by the sages, “an eighth of an eighth of a measure of ego”). This is the Red Heifer acting to purify the defiled, i.e., to bring someone who is far from G-d, close to Him. The “redness” of the Red Heifer in this initial phase symbolizes the “redness” of Esau, that is, his feelings of self-importance. So a sense of ego and an expectation of reward based on the merit of one's action can rightly provide impetus for a person to do good. But, once a person has indeed started pursuing the good, those same feelings that caused the initial excitement, which purified him, now paradoxically will defile him. Though they were positive when the moment came to act, they turn into a deadly poison as we progress further along the path of G-d. The “redness” of the Red Heifer thus defiles the pure, those who are already seeking nearness to G-d. Once you are involved in doing good, embrace lowliness with both arms wide open; give all the credit to the Almighty for making you into a vessel to perform good deeds.
What is true for someone who is striving to begin a path of spiritual growth is also true of someone who is already righteous and holy. The way in which the Red Heifer works for a righteous individual (a tzadik) is applicable to you who have been reading these chapters on “Spiritual Work For Our Generation,” and are concerned that lowliness will prove an impediment to spirited action and excitement about doing (especially good deeds). How?
The Ba’al Shem Tov says that the righteous individual who suffers from lowliness not in its proper place, lowliness which prevents him from feeling worthy or able to do a good deed, is indeed far from G-d and in an impure state of mind. The ash of the Red Heifer purifies him (uplifts his spirit to feel close to G-d and able to stand up and take initiative) by adding a bit of a “high heart” (as was described earlier regarding the king Yehoshafat). The righteous person does not seek reward or the feeling of accomplishment for its own sake, but in order to “jump-start” his actions. But should this “high heart,” this sense of accomplishment remain to the end, then it will indeed turn into a feeling of self-importance and worth for having done so and so, distancing the person from G-d, and that is how the Red Heifer defiles the pure.
To conclude, lowliness and its opposite sentiments are paradoxical. They act like the Red Heifer by defiling the pure and purifying the defiled. Great care must be taken to make sure that our natural state be one of lowliness, and that when the need arises to find excitement and accomplishment in a task, those feelings should not linger past the starting point. It is crucial that at the (especially successful) culmination of the task, we return to our natural sense of lowliness, ascribing our abilities to G-d and not to ourselves.
Surprisingly, by embracing lowliness at the end of a successful accomplishment, by giving all the credit to G-d, we receive the strongest impetus to continue doing more of the same (for just as we experience G-d working through us in the present, so do we become confident that G-d will continue to work through us in the future).
1. Keter Shem Tov, 393.
2. Numbers 19.