Parshat Shoftim

Day 2:
A King's Humility

The Torah speaks this week about kings, and the three temptations to which a king in ancient times was exposed. A king, it says, should avoid acquiring too many horses, too many wives, or too much wealth. (Centuries later, King Shlomo eventually fell into all three traps.) Then the Torah gives the command that every king of Israel must write out a Sefer Torah and carry it with him always, “so that he may learn to be in awe of the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not feel superior to his people or turn from the law to the right or to the left.” (Devarim 17:17-20)


Even a king, someone whom all are bound to honor, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his people” – so how much more so the rest of us! This is one of the genuine revolutions Judaism brought about in the history of spirituality. The idea that a king in the ancient world should be humble would have seemed laughable at that time. We can still today see, in the ruins and relics of Mesopotamia and Egypt, an almost endless series of vanity projects created by ancient rulers in honour of themselves. Ramses II had four statues of himself and two of Queen Nefertiti placed on the front of the Temple at Abu Simbel. At 33 feet high, they are almost twice the height of Abraham Lincoln’s statue in Washington.

This is a clear example of how spirituality makes a difference to the way we act, feel, and think. Believing that there is a God in whose presence we stand means that we are not the center of our world. God is.

“I am dust and ashes,” said Avraham, the father of faith (Beraishit 18:27). “Who am I?” said Moshe, the greatest of the prophets (Shemot 3:11). Yet it was precisely at the moment Avraham called himself dust and ashes that he challenged God on the justice of His proposed punishment of Sodom and the cities of the plain. It was Moshe, the humblest of men, who urged God to forgive the people, and if not, “blot me out of the book You have written” (Shemot 32:32). Despite their humility, these were among the boldest people humanity has ever produced.


There is a fundamental difference between two words in Hebrew: anava, “humility”, and shiflut, “self-abasement”. So different are they that Rambam defined humility as the middle path between shiflut and pride. Humility is not low self-regard. That is shiflut. Humility means that you are secure enough not to need to be reassured by others. It means that you don’t feel you have to prove yourself by showing that you are cleverer, smarter, more gifted or more successful than others. You can still feel secure, because you know you live in God’s love. He has faith in you even if you do not. You do not need to compare yourself to others. You have your task, they have theirs, and that leads you to cooperate, not compete. This means that you can see other people and value them for what they are. Secure in yourself, you can value others. Confident in your identity, you can value the people not like you. 

Life lessons from the parsha: “Justice, justice, you shall pursue.” Why the repetition? Sometimes we’re so eager to pursue justice, we use less-than-just means to get it. One might fight for the rights of some at the expense of others, but the end DOES NOT justify the means. Justice is repeated here to explain the following concept: that justice must be used when pursuing justice. Learn more in this week’s Parsha Partner. (courtesy of Partners in Torah)

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Bonus Material

It’s Not About You by Rabbi Josh Spinner

Years ago, I went to meet the great halachic possek and teacher, Rabbi David Feinstein zt”l. I hoped to study at his yeshiva, aiming to prepare myself for a life of outreach to young Jews in Europe.

Read More

Daily Goals

When we place the self at the center of our universe, we eventually turn everyone and everything into a means to our ends. That diminishes them, which diminishes us. Humility means living by the light of that which is greater than me. Today, let’s make God the center of our lives. When we do this, we open ourselves up to the glory of creation and the beauty of other people. The smaller the self, the wider the radius of our world.

Parsha Questions

  1. Why would a king (and perhaps any kind of leader) need the law of writing a Torah scroll?

  2. Why is there a danger that too much humility will lead to shiflut (self-abasement)?

  3. How can we avoid this?How does placing God at the centre of our lives allow us to achieve humility?

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Day 1: The Ramban's Letter

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Day 3: The Art of Listening

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