By Rav David Silverberg
The opening verse of Parashat Vayikra tells of God summoning Moshe inside the Mishkan for the first time since its construction. The final verses of Sefer Shemot tell that Moshe stood outside the Mishkan after it was assembled, as the cloud, signifying God’s presence, had descended upon the Mishkan. Now, as Sefer Vayikra opens, God calls to Moshe from inside the Mishkan.
On this basis it was said: Any Torah scholar without dei’a [wisdom] – an animal carcass is better than him… Go learn from Moshe, the father of wisdom and the father of all the prophets, who led Israel from Egypt, through whom numerous miracles were performed in Egypt and wonders at the Sea of Reeds, who ascended to the highest heavenly spheres and brought the Torah down from the heavens, and who involved himself in the work of the Mishkan – and yet he did not enter inside until he was called.
The Midrash here teaches that if a scholar lacks the kind of “wisdom” displayed by Moshe, who waited outside the Mishkan until he was called inside, then “an animal carcass is better than him.” What precise quality is the Midrash referring to, and why do they use specifically the image of an animal carcass?
The example set here by Moshe is one of humility, but a particular kind of humility, namely, avoiding feelings of entitlement and privilege despite one’s outstanding accomplishments. As the Midrash emphasizes, nobody could have possibly deserved the right to enter the Mishkan more than Moshe Rabbenu, and yet he humbly waited outside. It has been suggested that this quality reflects true “dei’a” because one who truly pursues and acquires knowledge recognizes how much he still does not know and understand. The more one knows, the more he realizes how much knowledge he lacks. Somebody with true “dei’a” does not feel entitled to any special privileges or honor because he is keenly aware – more than ordinary people – of how much he has not yet achieved. And so a scholar who demands recognition and privileges, who feels that his achievements entitle him to respect and special benefits, lacks true “wisdom,” because true wisdom leads a person to recognize his smallness and limited achievements.
This is true not only of scholarship, but of all areas of personal achievement. The more we grow in any area, the more we realize how much more there remains to be achieved. Growth should lead us to humility, not pride, because as we grow we become more aware of how much we have not yet grown.
And thus the Midrash says about an arrogant scholar, “an animal carcass is better than him.” A carcass is expected to rot and decompose; it is a natural process that everyone anticipates. But if somebody lacks humility due to his achievements, he does not recognize his potential decline, he does not expect that he will “rot.” He feels secure in his achievements, when in truth, there is still so much more that he has not accomplished. And so he is, in a certain sense, lower than an animal carcass, as he does not anticipate the regression that his arrogance and complacency will undoubtedly produce.
Originally appears on VBM