Rabbi Yochanan said that wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings. It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awe-inspiring God, who shows no favoritism and accepts no bribe.” Immediately afterwards it is written, “He upholds the cause of the orphan and widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing” (Megillah 31a).
God cares for all regardless of rank, and so must we, even a king – especially a king. Greatness is humility.
In the context of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, there is a story worth telling. It happened in St James Palace on January 27, 2005, the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Punctuality, said Louis XVIII of France, is the politeness of kings. Royalty arrives on time and leaves on time. So it is with the Queen, but not on this occasion. When the time came for her to leave, she stayed. And stayed. One of her attendants said he had never known her to linger so long after her scheduled departure time.
She was meeting a group of Holocaust survivors. She gave each survivor – it was a large group – her focused, unhurried attention. She stood with each until they had finished telling their personal story. One after another, the survivors were coming to me in a kind of trance, saying, “Sixty years ago I did not know whether I would be alive tomorrow, and here I am today talking to the Queen.” It brought a kind of blessed closure into deeply lacerated lives. Sixty years earlier they had been treated, in Germany, Austria, Poland, in fact in most of Europe, as subhuman, yet now the Queen was treating them as if each were a visiting head of state. That was humility: not holding yourself low but holding others high. And where you find humility, there you find greatness.
It is a lesson for each of us. Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin said, “Der grester yester hora is az mir fargest az mi is ein ben melech – The greatest source of sin is to forget we are children of the king.” We say “Avinu Malkeinu – Our father, our king.” It follows that we are all members of a royal family and must act as if we are. And the mark of royalty is humility.
The real honor is not the honor we receive but the honor we give.
Adapted from “Covenant & Conversation,” a collection of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s parshiyot hashavua essays, to be published by Maggid Books, an imprint of Koren Publishers Jerusalem (www.korenpub.com), in conjunction with the Orthodox Union.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth since 1991, is the author of many books of Jewish thought, most recently “The Koren Sacks Rosh HaShana Mahzor” (Koren Publishers Jerusalem).