I Thought I Was Humble: Sotah 40

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |
 
In our last post we discussed the Talmudic tendency to group together sayings of one particular sage quoting another. In discussing various prayers the congregation might say while the kohanim are blessing the people, the Gemara records a debate as to whether they should be said everywhere, only in the Temple, or not at all. Rabbi Avahu, living in Caesarea well after the destruction of the Temple, commented “originally I used to recite them but when I saw that Rabbi Abba of Acco did not recite them I also did not” (Sotah 40a). 
 
This is followed by a rather remarkable teaching of Rabbi Avahu coming once again after witnessing the actions of Rav Abba of Acco. “At first I used to think that I was humble; but when I saw Rabbi Abba of Acco offer one explanation and his amora, spokesperson, offer another without his taking exception I considered that I was not humble”.  
 
In Talmudic times the Amoraim had a meturgaman[1], translator, what we might call today a teaching assistant. Instead of giving tutorials, the assistant would be the one who explained the lecture of the Amora to the audience. The Amora would tell his assistant his thoughts and the meturgaman (or amora [2]) would expound upon it in a clear matter to all assembled. Probably the most famous of these assistants was Chutzpit Hameturgaman who served as the assistant for Rabban Gamliel[3]. Rabbi Avahu witnessed Rabbi Abba’s meturgaman giving his own explanations instead of those of his teacher and instead of berating and correcting him he said nothing. 
 
This may not sound like a big deal but consider what would happen if a CEO would tell his or her executive assistant to do something one way and they did it another way. Even if they would not be fired surely something would be said. It takes a great person to admit that their subordinates may have better ways of doing things. The Maharsha explains that Rav Abba realized his meturgaman was doing a much better job at explaining his ideas than he himself could do and thus he said nothing. This despite the public nature of his disobedience and potential embarrassment caused. Often others understand our words better than we do ourselves.
 
One might find the notion of one claiming to be humble an oxymoron. Yet that is based on a misunderstanding of the Jewish concept of anivut, which we generally translate as humility. To be an anavmeans to understand one’s place and role in society. It does not mean we do not recognize greatness in ourselves. A true anavrecognizes this but also recognizes that the source of greatness are his G-d given talents and uses them accordingly trying to fulfil one's unique role on earth. The greater our anivut the greater we can be and not to acknowledge such is false modesity. It is no coincidence that the only character trait used to describe Moshe Rabeinu, is that he was “anav meod, very humble, more so than anyone who has walked the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:2). 
 
The Gemara in extoling the humility of Rabbi Avahu explains that the wife of the meturgaman of Rabbi Avahu told Rabbi Avahu’s wife 'My husband has no need of [instruction from] your husband; and when he bends down and straightens himself, he merely pays him respect'” (Sotah 40a). When Rabbi Avahu's wife told him what she had said he basically responded who cares? “Through me and him the All-Highest is praised” (Sotah 40a). Us moderns might paraphrase and say ‘you can accomplish much as long as it does not matter who gets the credit."
 
I would argue that Rabbi Avahu displayed greater humility than Rabbi Abba - the former was directly insulted the latter at most indirectly so. Is it any wonder Rabbi Avahu teaches that “one should always strive to be among the pursued, and not among the pursuers, for none amongst the birds is more pursued than pigeons and turtle doves, and yet these are the only species [of fowl] fit for the altar?” (Bava Kamma 93a).
 
The Talmud follows by recording an almost super human display of humility of Rav Avahu. Rabbi Avahu’s colleagues appointed him to be their leader - how beautiful (and so rare) when we seek and elect leaders who are humble - and yet he rejected the job. Not because he did not want it, nor even because he thought he was unworthy - as a truly humble person he recognized how worthy he was but rather “he saw that Rav Abba of Acco had numerous creditors [pressing for payment], he said to the Rabbis, 'There is a greater [scholar than I for the office]'”.  
 
Our Sages understood that to be effective a leader must be a person of means - sadly it is hard to gain the respect of others unless one is wealthy - and ruled that our leaders must be “made rich”. Seeing how much Rav Abba owed to his creditors Rabbi Avahu stepped aside so that his colleague could earn an appropriate salary allowing him to pay his debts. 
 
The Talmud concludes the stories of Rabbi Avahu with the following. Rabbi Avahu and Rav Chiyya bar Abba came to “that place”. Upon arriving Rabbi Avahu gave a shiur on agaddah whereas Rav Chiyya bar Abba gave his shiur on halacha. Not surprisingly Rabbi Avahu’s shiur was much more popular. Rav Chiyya was (also not surprisingly) upset and Rabbi Avahu tried to pacify him by telling him it is quality not quantity that matters most. The halacha is the precious stones of Jewish learning, but not all can attain such. The agaddah is the “small wares” that all can afford but are of lesser value. Legal technicalities do not draw the same crowds as great story telling but we dare not value something based on its popularity. This did little to pacify Rav Chiyya and even after Rabbi Avahu escorted Rav Chiyya to his lodging place as an act of respect Rav Chiyya was not pacified.  
 
Not all can attain the humility of Rabbi Avahu. By ending the discussion with Rav Chiyya’s “hurt feelings” our Sages may be indicating that Rav Chiyya’s attitude is the much more “normal” one. It is spiritually dangerous to attempt to reach heights too far beyond us and we need not despair that we have a normal healthy ego.
 
[1] This was in addition to the meturgaman who would translate the Torah reading verse by verse to Aramaic - a practice that continued in some locales until the 13th century. Today our printed Hebrew-English chumashim serve much the same purpose. 
 
[2] As noted above the Gemara refers to this assistant as an "amora" meaning one who says i.e the lecture. Today it is the Sages of the Gemara whom we call Amoraim, but it appears that amora has its origins in the one who said lecture to the masses.
 
[3] After Rabban Gamliel had embarrassed Rabbi Yehoshua for the third time the assembled sages told Chutzpit Hameturgaman to cease from continuing saying over the shiur of Rabban Gamliel - and they followed that instruction with a (temporary) impeachment (Brachot 27b).