The story is told of a young man who wished to join the ranks of the elite students studying in the great yeshivas of pre-war Europe. He showed up at the yeshiva during mussar seder, the period of the day devoted to the study of ethics and character development. He overheard two of the more senior students discussing the trait of humility, as they kept repeating in a sing-song voice “ich bin gornisht, ich bin gornisht”’, which translates into English as “ I am nothing, I am nothing.” Figuring that if you can’t beat them why not join them, he promptly took a seat right behind them and began chanting “ich bin gornisht, ich bin gornisht”. Upon noticing this newcomer sitting behind them and mimicking their actions, one of the elder student turned to his friend and said, ”Who does this guy think he is? He just showed up and already he thinks he’s gornisht!”
Seriously, where did people get the idea that in order to achieve humility one must view themselves as a “gornisht” or worthless? Perhaps it’s from a verse in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, where we find Avraham Avinu, our Patriarch Abraham, engaged in a fervent effort to beseech The Almighty to spare the inhabitants of Sodom from destruction. In the midst of his entreaty, Avraham says “Behold, I desired to speak to my Lord although I am but dust and ash.” At face value, that statement sounds like the epitome of self-deprecation. After all, dust and ash don’t rank among the high and mighty. Upon closer examination, however, we’ll see that such is not the case.
Rashi explains that when Avraham said “I am nothing but dust and ash”, the sentiment he meant to express was “I would have been turned into dust during the battle against the Four Kings, in which I was miraculously victorious, and I’d have been reduced to ashes when Nimrod threw me into the fiery furnace for my refusal to worship idols, if not for Your kindness, Hashem, which has always stood by me.” It emerges from Rashi’s explanation that Avraham’s sense of humility didn’t stem from a feeling of worthlessness, but from a recognition of how much Divine mercy and kindness he’d been a beneficiary throughout his life. This realization didn’t make Avraham feel like a “gornisht”, but like someone special in the eyes of Hashem in such a way that left no room for arrogance.
I believe that anyone having an objective perspective won’t fail to view matters precisely as Avraham did. Who can honestly look themselves in the mirror and not say “Where would I be if it weren’t for the abundant and overwhelming kindness which Hashem has bestowed upon me?” The beauty of such a statement is that it enables one to simultaneously feel both like a million dollars as like two cents; a million dollars’ worth of specialness in the eyes of Hashem, and two cents worth of arrogance and hubris in the eyes of their ego, for they realize that the only time one can allow themselves to get carried away is on the day of their burial, but until then one must live with a sense of humility rooted in the ultimate sense of self-worth stemming from the love and kindness shown to them by their Creator.