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March 31, 2015 / 11 Nisan, 5775
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A Humbling Lesson (Part III)

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The Talmud teaches that if there is ever a conflict, saving a life always has priority over mitzvah performance. An obvious example would be if someone’s life is in peril the person must go to the hospital on Shabbos and the driving to get to the medical facility does not constitute chillul Shabbos, but rather a fulfillment of the Torah injunction, “You shall live by them [the mitzvos],” from which the Talmud derives, “and not die by them.”

There are, however, three exceptions – known as yehareig v’al ya’avor, sometimes referred to as the Three Cardinal Sins. Regarding these three critical transgressions, the law is that one must be prepared to give up one’s life rather than violate the sin.

The specific application of when one must be prepared to sacrifice one’s life rather than violate a Torah precept pertains to idol worship, sexual crimes and – not derived from a Torah verse – murder. The reason that there is no specific verse regarding the latter, such as when under the threat of death you are ordered to kill someone or be killed yourself, is because a verse is not required to teach that which is logical. “Who says,” asks the Talmud, “that your blood is redder than another person’s? Perhaps the opposite is the case.”

Regarding the last instance, the chassidic rebbe, Reb Simcha Bunim, noted that this seminal Talmudic ruling conveys an important lesson about humility. “The fact that we cannot kill an innocent person to save our own lives is based on the presumption that we cannot know whose life is more important in the eyes of God. If even in so crucial a moment we have no right to deem ourselves superior to another, what right can we possibly have to do so on less critical occasions?”

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his Codes of Jewish Ethics (volume I), highlights another ramification of this Talmudic teaching: Don’t exploit others, as historically was done through slavery, as is done today by those who overwork, underpay, or otherwise wrong their employees. How can one assume that one’s blood is more precious than the blood of those whom one mistreats?

And this teaching has implications in far less serious areas than matters of life and death and exploitation. For example, a humble person will not push ahead of someone else in line. One who pushes assumes that his place is in front of where he currently is. And when he acquires that place he seeks a place even further ahead.

A humble person will contemplate, “What gives me the right to assume that my time is more valuable than his?” In more practical terms, a humble person (not only a decent person) will not double- or triple-park. The thought of causing others inconvenience is anathema to him or her. Such an individual will not cut a line – not at a buffet, nor on the entrance ramp to the Brooklyn Bridge – for they do not believe that their time is more important than the time of others.

There are many “likewise” categories regarding humble people, which is why it is not coincidental that they are appealing individuals. If we think about those who annoy us, the humble ones never make it to the list. Let us analyze some of these “becauses.”

A humble person bears no ill will toward those who disagree with her or him. Such an individual is aware that people have the right to understand the world differently, and that their perceptions might have something to teach her or him.

Another fair generalization about humble people is that they do not see themselves as superior to others – or more deserving. Accordingly, they are less apt to suffer from a sense of entitlement. Instead, they are grateful for all that they are blessed with.

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