This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.
Rabban Yochanan ben (the son of) Zakkai received the oral tradition from Hillel and Shammai. He [Rabban Yochanan] used to say, "If you have learned a lot of Torah, do not hold yourself like you are worthier than thou; it is for this that you were created."
People say humility means making oneself appear small in the eyes of others. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai says it doesn't take much to appear small the way you want to appear small. However, to lower oneself according to the edicts of others, now that is difficult. Rav Shlomo Leib Brevda, a liver and breather of truth if there ever was one, learned in the Mir Yeshiva as a bachur (young adult Jewish scholar). During one of his lectures as a middle aged man, he described an incident where he met with Rabban Yochanan's idea of humility. Young Brevda went to visit Rav Chatzkel, the guiding force for the other learning boys at his yeshiva for Passover seder. When Brevda entered the home he noticed a pair of fellow scholars and that the only seat available was on Rav Chatzkel's left. The two older boys were talking and \Rav Chatzkel had his head down deep in thought. The American bachur stood by the edge of the table waiting for the boys to move since, he reasoned, it was befitting for the youngest, and lowliest, to sit at the end. No one paid him any mind, though. At one point, the Rav looked up and said, "I see that as the youngest one here, you think it befitting for you to sit at the end." Brevda was proud; the Rav understood him. He waited again; no one moved. Rav Chatzkel looked up a second time, "This young man does not understand that in order to be small, one does't need to sit at the end. He sits where he's told and he doesn't make a fuss." And Brevda walked what felt like thirteen million miles to sit on the Rav's left.
This sense of honest humility stuck to Rav Brevda for the rest of his life. During his days in yeshiva, Rav Chatzkel turned to him one day and said, "Spread truth among the Jewish nation!" "But I am so shy," Rav Brevda protested. "I can barely raise my voice in public." "You will spread truth," the Rav repeated. Rav Brevda did. He spoke numerous times throughout his life. As a speaker, he was captivating: funny, brilliant and eloquent but if someone went up to him afterward for a quick hello or blessing the approaching man met a person who could barely string together words for a sentence.
Honest humility does not need words. "Oh, I'm so humble!" It shows in the way one carries himself. One who is truly humble understands that he was given a great gift and that with it comes a heavier responsibility. , "If you have learned a lot of Torah, do not hold yourself like you are worthier than thou; it is for this that you were created." He does not bask in the glory of his accomplishments.
Rabban Yochanan knew that as the leader of a generation where the second temple was on the verge of destruction, aid was no light matter. At the time, the Roman general Vespasian, had laid siege on the Old City. In order to get out so he could request mercy on behalf of the Jews, the sage faked his own death, got carried out by his students in a coffin for "burial" but instead headed to Vespasian. He asked that the Roman allow him to rebuild the yeshiva in Yavneh. why not ask for Jerusalem to be given back into Jewish hands? Rabban Yochanan understood that the most important thing right then was not seizing Jerusalem back from Roman rule, it was ensuring the continuity of the Jewish nation. In order for Jewry to survive the coming exile, people needed to continue learning the Torah. One needs a center for learning Torah to reach that end.
Rabban Yochanan didn't stop there. Though he was already an old man by then, he went on to accomplish many more things. One might learn here that doing good things for the sake of recognition and honor is not only a bad thing, it is limiting. Once a person sees that he is receiving the admiration he so desired for accomplishing such and such, he will stop. After all, he got what he wanted! Therefore, Rabban Yochanan advised us to measure ourselves by the yardsticks of our own capabilities and not according to the measuring sticks of others.
How much more can I get done?