Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: Whoever is boastful, if he is a sage, his wisdom will desert him; if a prophet, prophecy will desert him. If he is a sage, his wisdom will desert him: [we learn this] from Hillel, for the master said [in a baraita]: “Hillel began to rebuke them with words” and [subsequently] said to them, “I heard this halakhah but have forgotten it.” If he is a prophet, his prophecy will desert him [is learned] from Deborah, as it is written, The villagers ceased, they ceased from Israel, until I, Deborah, arose a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7). And it is [subsequently] written, Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! (Judges 5:12)
Rav, whose full name was Abba Aricha (175–247 CE), was a student of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (135–217 CE), the compiler of the Mishnah. Rav founded an important yeshivah in Sura in Babylonia where Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel (220–299 CE) was among Rav’s closest and most important disciples. Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel, Rav’s student, conveys a teaching concerning the effects of boastfulness and arrogance in the name of his master, Rav.
While the Rabbis’ primary concern may well have been deducing halakhic principles, procedures, and laws, the world of ethical and character values was also within their scope. Among the attributes they especially prized was humility. The quintessential model of humility is Moses, of whom Torah says, Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth (Numbers 12:3).
For the Rabbis, not only is humility consistent with greatness, but genuine greatness (particularly in the realm of Torah scholarship) and humility are inseparable. R. Chanina b. Ida taught that Torah is like water: just as water flows only downhill, so too Torah’s wisdom endures only with those who are humble (BT Ta’anit 7a).
Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel conveys the teaching of his master, Rav, that arrogant boasting undermines not only the acquisition, but also the retention of wisdom. For the Rabbis, the two modes by which people acquire wisdom are Torah study and prophecy. And while the age of prophecy was considered to have ended by the time this passage was written, the Rabbis still evoke the image of a prophet who had a direct communication from God. Hence, Rav illustrates his claim with the example of a rabbi (Hillel) and a prophet (Deborah).
Earlier on this same folio (66a), Gemara recounted that long ago questions arose concerning the performance of Passover rituals normally not permitted on shabbat: What happens when the festival coincides with shabbat? The only one who knew whether Passover overrides shabbat was Hillel. Therefore he was immediately appointed Nasi. Hillel taught the laws of Passover but veered off into boasting about his credentials and berating the community’s leaders for being lazy and ignorant. The community leaders then asked Hillel what the law is in the case of someone who forgets to bring a knife to slaughter his pesach lamb to the Temple—the slaughter is permitted on shabbat, but is carrying the knife permitted? Hillel responded, “I heard this law, but I have forgotten it.” In the passage above, Rav connects these two events causally, claiming that the reason Hillel forgot the law he had once known was because he had arrogantly boasted of his scholastic prowess.
The second example is Deborah, the general who was also a prophet. In Judges chapter 5 (one of the oldest surviving examples of biblical poetry), Deborah derides the ineffectiveness of the leaders who preceded her and praises her own amazing victory over the Canaanites under their general, Sisera. The phrase quoted—Awake, Awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song!—is here interpreted by the Rabbis to signal that Deborah’s gift of prophecy had evaporated. According to Rav, coming on the tail of her boasting, this was the result of her haughtiness.
Rav does not specify the precise causal connection between boastfulness and the cessation of wisdom. Could it be that braggarts are entirely focused on themselves and therefore unable to focus on learning and receiving wisdom from without? Has the ego become a barrier that wisdom and genuine Torah learning cannot cross?
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- Genuine humility seems to run counter to human nature. In a classic hasidic story, a man complains to his rabbi, “The sages taught that one who runs away from fame, fame will pursue him. I have spent my entire life running away from fame, but fame has never pursued me.” His rabbi responded, “The trouble is that you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing you.” How would you define humility? Do you consider yourself humble? How do you think others see you?
- The world of social media has birthed the term “humble brag.” (Urban Dictionary’s definition: “Subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss.”) Have you observed the “humble brag?” Have you engaged in “humble bragging?” If so, why?
- The Italian commentator, kabbalist, and philosopher, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746) wrote humorously about false modesty in Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Upright): “[One] imagines that he is so great and so deserving of honor that no one can deprive him of the usual signs of respect. To prove this, he behaves as though he were humble and goes to great extremes in displaying boundless modesty and infinite humility. But in his heart he is proud, saying to himself, ‘I am so exalted, and so deserving of honor, that I need not have anyone do me honor. I can well afford to forgo marks of respect.’” If one is occupied with boasting about their humility, is this any different from boasting about their success?