Lowliness is the special character trait of King David. When escorting the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem , David was seen to be “squawking and chirping in song, before the Ark. ” Later, when his wife, Michal, rebuked him for his “embarrassing” behavior in front of the common folk (it is not befitting a king to belittle himself in such a manner in public) David replied:
G-d has chosen me as the ruler of the people of G-d, of the people of Israel , and I will dance before G-d. I will [be willing to] humiliate myself even more so, and I will be lowly in my own eyes…1
King David, a man whose deeds were the stuff of battle hymns before he was 30 years old, perhaps the greatest warrior in the Bible, the king who unified the nation of Israel, had conquered Jerusalem and proclaimed it the seat of his kingdom, saw himself as a lowly person willing to humiliate himself in public. How can we explain this seeming paradox? In fact, there is no other individual in the entire Bible who refers to himself using the same adjective.
In Chassidic teachings, lowliness is identified as the inner quality of the sefirah of kingdom (malchut), implying an especially deep connection between it and the figure of the king. For most people, before being introduced to its true meaning, “lowliness” (which can also be understood as synonymous with “humility”) strikes a negative chord. This is because lowliness is seen as a negative trait in a competitive and progressive society. Western culture encourages us to “be all that we can”; we are taught that only by surmounting obstacles and raising our stature, can we be successful. From the modern perspective, “lowliness” sounds like low self-esteem—a negative self-image. And that can only be bad, right!?
Not necessarily. As explained in the text, lowliness together with selflessness is the mark of the healthiest of psyches. In fact, without them it is impossible for a person to strike a balance in life between expectations and achievements, or between private and social concerns, as will become clearer as we continue to study these ideas.
In Chassidut, lowliness is understood to be the result of a clear awareness of our “distance” from the Almighty. Every person is born into the world with a Divine mission—a Divine purpose to perform. The pure soul cannot be expected to descend into our mundane reality, which is the lowest of all possible realities, without a Divinely sanctioned reason and purpose, which is given to it by the Almighty Himself. But, here and now, our thoughts, our conversation, and our deeds reveal that we have lost sight of such a purpose, for we cannot say that they are for the sake of fulfilling the Almighty’s purpose for us.
In fact, not only have we lost sight of the reason we have come into this world, most of us struggle through life completely ignorant of what our personal mission might be, to the point where the purpose of life itself is questioned. As each soul is unique and different in its manifestation as a human being, so is its reason for descending into reality.
In order to become aware of purpose in life, a person must completely nullify him or her self in face of the Almighty.
Nullification is similar in meaning to “selflessness,” the mark of a healthy psyche, but it requires explanation in order to illustrate its use in practice. Every legal system has a concept of a “messenger.” For example, should Reuben appoint Simon to perform an action on his (Reuben’s) behalf then Simon is considered Reuben’s messenger (shali’ach, in Hebrew). One of the legal principles that is part of the concept of being a messenger (perhaps unique to Torah law) is that “a messenger is like the appointer” (shlucho shel adam k’moto). This means that as long as Simon is true to his appointment, he is considered for all intents and purposes responsible for and interested in the appointed task as if he were Reuben himself. It is as if Reuben’s self has been transferred to Simon. To remain fully committed to Reuben’s appointment Simon must experience a sense of nullifying himself before Reuben, because to remain true to Reuben’s intentions Simon must adopt them as if they were his own, disregarding any other feelings or ideas he might have otherwise.
For instance, if Reuben appointed Simon as his messenger to buy him a specific car from a car dealership, then to remain true to his appointment, Simon has to set aside whatever ideas he may have about that particular car’s manufacturer and model. It does not matter at all whether he thinks that it is a good buy or not. As Reuben’s messenger his sole task is to take Reuben’s funds and purchase the particular car.
This is something of a simplistic case, and most of the Divine tasks that each of us has been appointed by G-d to perform is much more complex and requires a lot of thought and sensitivity. But, in essence, the nullification before the Appointer (G-d) works the same way.
There is another legal principle that pertains to a messenger, and is relevant to our discussion. If indeed the messenger is true to his appointment by remaining nullified before the appointer, then we have every reasonable expectation that whatever he does is necessary for performing the task he was appointed to perform. In other words, the complexity of life and the free will, both our own and others’, makes it impossible for us to grasp our task with every contingency (i.e., from our point of view) already taken into account. Instead, the imbedded and inherent sense of being completely devoted to G-d, our Appointer, provides us with a “guarantee,” as it were, that all the actions we undertake in life will indeed be part of our greater task. More than revealing what our task and purpose is, understanding the role of our soul as that of G-d’s appointed messenger fills life with a sense of purpose and meaning. When truly living in a state of nullification, a person enters a state of what is called in Chassidut “natural consciousness,” where the next action, the next step (the answer to the question: “what comes next?”) flows naturally from our being.
Being aware of our “distance” from the Almighty means taking to heart how far we are from a state of living life with the feeling that all our actions are part of a Divinely sanctioned appointment. This distance is what makes life unbearable. At its core, the inability to recognize life as a Divine mission stems from an inability to feel lowly.
1. II Samuel 6:21-2.