Parashah Potpourri – Genuine Humility

Va’yomer Moshe el Aharon hu asher diber Hashem leimor bikrovai ekadesh (Shemini, 10:3)

Parashas Tzav concluded by describing the service that Moshe performed for seven days to inaugurate the Mishkan. Parashas Shemini begins with the climax of this period, which was reached on the eighth day, at which time Aharon and his sons were consecrated to serve as Kohanim in the Mishkan. Tragically, just at the peak of the joy of the inauguration ritual, Aharon’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, performed a service in the Mishkan that they weren’t commanded to do, and they paid for it with their lives.

Rashi writes that Moshe, reacting to this terrible loss, told Aharon that he had known that the Mishkan would be sanctified through the death of someone close to Hashem, but assumed that it would be either himself or Aharon. In light of what transpired, Moshe said that he now recognized that Nadav and Avihu were even greater than they. This comment is difficult to understand. How could Moshe, whom the Torah testifies (Bamidbar 12:3) was the humblest man to ever walk the earth, be so presumptuous as to assume that he was the most beloved by Hashem in his entire generation?

Harav Yechezkel Abramsky, zt”l, was once called upon to testify in a secular court in England. To establish his credentials as an expert witness, he was asked whether he was the most senior Rabbi and foremost authority on Jewish law in the entire British Empire, to which he replied in the affirmative. The astonished judge asked him how to resolve his seemingly arrogant response with the Jewish trait of humility. Rav Abramsky answered back, “What can I do? I’m under oath.”

Harav Leib Chasman, zt”l, explains that this question is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of humility. People are accustomed to thinking of a humble person as one who views himself as lowly and unworthy. The Torah, however, doesn’t equate humility with low self-esteem. On the contrary, a humble person may be well aware of his tremendous talents and skills. Nevertheless, he doesn’t view himself as worthy of praise and respect for them. In his humility, he attributes his talents to Divine gifts. Similarly, Moshe was well aware of his lofty spiritual status and naturally assumed that Hashem would choose to take him to consecrate the Mishkan, yet this in no way detracted from his humility.

This understanding of genuine humility can be contrasted with the misguided demonstration of modesty in the following amusing story. There was once a yeshivah in Europe that emphasized to its students the importance of acquiring the trait of humility and minimizing one’s view of one’s own worth and value. To that end, there were students who would repeat to themselves over and over, “Ich bin a gornisht” (I am a nothing), in an attempt to internalize this understanding.

One day a new student arrived in the yeshivah. Upon entering the beis medrash, he encountered a number of students sitting and repeating to themselves this phrase. Wanting to fit in, the new student sat down and joined them, repeating loudly and with great fervor this expression. One of the older students approached and rebuked him, “You just arrived here. Who are you to be a gornisht!?” Suffice it to say that although we have learned that a person should strive toward a humble and modest view of himself, this isn’t the “humility” that the Torah had in mind.

Q: Rabbeinu Bachya writes that the fire that consumed Nadav and Avihu (10:2) was one of 12 fires that descended from Heaven at various times. Six represented Divine satisfaction and came to indicate the acceptance of offerings, and six exacted punishment as an expression of Divine anger. How many of the 12 can be identified?

Q: Parashas Shemini introduces us to the laws governing kosher and prohibited foods (11:1-47). How is it possible that a person can combine two distinct food items, one kosher and one forbidden, and as a result, the kosher food becomes prohibited, while the forbidden one is rendered kosher?

A: Rabbeinu Bachya lists six Heavenly fires that descended to accept earthly offerings: the fire that descended to accept the offerings that were brought during the inauguration of the Mishkan (Vayikra 9:24), the fire that came down to accept Gideon’s offerings (Shoftim 6:21), the fire that descended to accept Manoach’s offerings (Shoftim 13:20), the fire that came down to accept Dovid’s offerings (Divrei Hayamim 1 21:26), the fire that descended to the Beis Hamikdash after Shlomo inaugurated it (Divrei Hayamim 2 7:1), and the fire that came down to accept Eliyahu Hanavi’s offerings in his dispute with the false prophets (Melachim 1 18:38). The six Heavenly fires of punishment were: the fire that killed Nadav and Avihu (Vayikra 10:2), the fire that punished the people who complained against Moshe (Bamidbar 11:1), the fire that killed Korach and his followers (Bamidbar 16:35), the fire that killed Iyov’s sheep and servants (Iyov 1:16), and the two fires that were brought by Eliyahu to punish the two captains of 50 and their men (Melachim 2 1:9-12).

A: After an animal has been ritually slaughtered, its meat may not be eaten until it has been properly salted. Although the salt that is used for this purpose is initially kosher for consumption, through its contact with the meat, it absorbs blood and becomes forbidden, while the same process transforms the once-prohibited meat and renders it kosher.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email