A non-Jew was walking past a beis medrash when he heard the sound of a melamed teaching this week’s parashah to his young students. The Torah’s description of the Choshen and the Eiphod, the majestic garments that were made for Aharon Hakohen, piqued the interest of the non-Jew.
“Who are these for?” the non-Jew asked.
“The Kohen Gadol,” the students answered,
“I will convert to Judaism so that they will appoint me as the Kohen Gadol,” the non-Jew decided.
He made his way to Shammai, and said, “Convert me on condition that you have me appointed as Kohen Gadol.”
The saintly Tanna rejected the request, pushing the man away with a stick that was usually used as a measuring rod for constructing buildings. (The Maharsha explains that this stick symbolized that, just as a building cannot stand on a single pedestal, so too Judaism does not stand on the concept of kehunah alone. A gentile must have a greater motivation to convert in order to be become a Jew.)
The non-Jew went to Hillel, who gave a very different reply.
“Can we appoint anyone as king without his being familiar with the ceremonies of royalty?” Hillel told him, and advised him to first learn about the requirements of kehunah before his request could be considered.
The non-Jew went and learned scripture, and learned that the Torah teaches that the “stranger” (that is, a non-Kohen) who performs the essential parts of the avodah commits a sin punishable by death.
The non-Jew inquired about whom this ruling applies.
“Even about Dovid Melech Yisrael,” Hillel told him.
The non-Jew thereupon arrived at the conclusion that he couldn’t possibly serve as a Kohen Gadol and proceeded to convert wholeheartedly, without pre-conditions. (Shabbos 31b)
The Gemara in Megillah (12a) interprets the words in the Megillah “when he displayed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honors of his splendrous majesty for many days…” to mean that Achashveirosh donned the garments of the Kohen Gadol.
The Chasam Sofer gives a fascinating explanation on these teachings of Chazal: In the outside world, humility and leadership usually don’t go together. In contrast, the loftier the spiritual level reached by the Torah-true leaders of Klal Yisrael, the greater their subjugation to Hashem.
Yet, even a Jewish king was forbidden to forego the honor coming to him from his subjects. Shmuel Hanavi reprimanded Shaul Hamelech for his excessive humility and for not defending his honor.
In regard to Dovid Hamelech, Chazal (Megillah 11a) teach us, “Just as in his youth he humbled himself before anyone who was his superior in Torah, so in his kingship he humbled himself before anyone who was his superior in wisdom.”
It is noteworthy that in regard to his youth, Chazal say that Dovid humbled himself to anyone superior in Torah — even if this individual only knew one more Torah teaching than he did. As a king, though he remained exceedingly humble, Dovid Hamelech only humbled himself for someone who was greater than him in wisdom — something significantly more than a single Torah teaching.
Aharon Hakohen, however, was able to simultaneously serve as the first Kohen Gadol — a position akin to a king — and yet reach such lofty levels of humility that he was able to reach out and be mekarev each member of the Bnei Yisrael.
Achashveirosh, eager to strengthen his hold on the monarchy, and intent on being able to rule his huge empire on his own, without his ministers having power, felt that the way to build the support of the populace was to establish personal relationships with his subjects.
He therefore wanted to emulate Aharon Hakohen and don the garments of the Kohen Gadol — which symbolized these two attributes of leadership and humility.
Achashveirosh was, of course, singularly unsuccessful in changing his middos. At his first real test, when challenged by Vashti, his humility was nowhere to be found. His subsequent instructions to his subjects — that each man should be the sole ruler of his household — essentially prohibited men from living humble lives.
This was the intent of the non-Jew who came to Hillel as well. He, too, wanted to be able to achieve the lofty level of Aharon Hakohen and be able to simultaneously achieve a leadership position while remaining exceedingly humble.
Hillel pointed out to him that even Dovid Hamelech had been unable to emulate Aharon in this regard; even this most humble king was not able to retain the same level of humility when he was king as he had before he ascended the throne.
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Each of us is in a leadership position: We are leaders of our own minds and hearts.
On one hand, a humble heart is an essential part of avodas Hashem.
On the other hand, there are times when one must apply the passuk, “Vayigbah libo b’darchei Hashem — His heart was elevated in the ways of Hashem.” Otherwise, a person would wrongly assume that he is not worthy of being a servant of Hashem, and this would actually cause him to become negligent and would weaken his resolve for spiritual growth.
May we be granted the wisdom to know when to use and correctly apply each of these attributes.