There is a Hassidic story about a certain rabbi who was leading services for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Yom Kippur services are very long and intense, filled with language of remorse and repentance for one’s sins. It’s also a twenty-five hour fast, so the effect is to really bring you to a state of bitul- a kind of deflating or nullification of your ego and purification from arrogance.
As this rabbi was davening (praying) with great intensity toward the climax of the service, he suddenly became overwhelmed with the realization of his own insignificance- a total dropping away of his ego. He realized with embarrassment how arrogant he had become, and before he knew what he was doing, he spontaneously cried out-
“Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the universe! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan- the cantor- saw him do this, he too became inspired. The sincerity of the rabbi’s cry combined with the intensity of the holy day shot through him, and he suddenly realized the same thing.
“Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!” cried the hazzan.
The truth was infectious. Suddenly, a poor congregant, Shmuyel the shoemaker, also became deeply moved and cried out as well:
“Ribono Shel Olam! I am nothing! I am nothing!”
When the hazzan saw Shmuyel’s enthusiasm, he turned to the rabbi with incredulity: “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
Genuine spiritual transformation is real. It’s emerges from the truth of who we are, and everyone has access to it, at least potentially. But, anything that the mind can recognize and label can be coopted by the ego! One moment there is genuine humility, the next moment you want to wear the humility like some kind of badge. In an instant, you can become arrogant about being humble!
What’s the remedy?
Today is the festival of Lag Ba'Omer, the thirty-third day of the forty-nine days between Passover and Shavuot (Lag is simply the letters Lamed and Gimel which together make the number 33- Lamed is thirty, Gimel is three). Each of the forty-nine days is a permutation of the seven spiritual qualities in Kabbalah.
Today, the thirty-third day, is Hod Sheb’Hod, which we could call Humility of Humility, but we could also call it Gratitude of Humility.
What is humility?
To me, humility is not really a thing, but the absence of a thing. It’s the natural state of a person when ego, or separate self-sense, is not inflamed with arrogance or other ego qualities.
But since arrogance and other ego qualities are often present unconsciously, it can be a great and surprising relief when they drop away. The heart feels so free when the qualities of ego dissolve, and like the story, you may not have even known how much ego was there until it disappears.
But then the mind comes in a makes that freedom into a “thing,” into a badge, into something to identify with- in other words, egoless-ness becomes a form of ego.
So today, Lag b’Omer, comes along and reminds us:
If you experience egoless-ness, it’s a gift. Give thanks for it, don’t think of it as “me.” That’s Gratitude of Humility, and it’s also Humility of Humility.
Hag Samayakh and Good Shabbos!