Talmud pages

Megillah 31

Might and humility.

Spider-Man’s uncle famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Though he was not the first — similar statements are found in the speeches of many 20th century statesmen, from Winston Churchill to Teddy Roosevelt, and before that in writings composed at the time of the French Revolution and even the Sword of Damocles, from the fourth century BCE.) Power is famously dangerous — it can lead to a disconnect from the less powerful, a lack of empathy and megalomania. It takes intention and effort to remember one’s responsibility to the world and one’s fellow humans — intention and effort that Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben wanted his remarkable nephew to be aware of. 

Today’s daf tells us something else: With ultimate power comes ultimate humility. How ultimate? We’re talking about God. 

Rabbi Yohanan said: Wherever you find the might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you find his humility. This fact is written in the Torah, repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Writings.

Rabbi Yochanan notes that when the Hebrew Bible mentions God’s ultimate power and authority, the next verse in some way demonstrates God’s humility. And this is found in all three sections of the Hebrew Bible: Torah, Prophets and Writings

When we think about humility, we often think of people downplaying their accomplishments, having no need to brag. But the examples that Rabbi Yohanan now brings highlight a different aspect of the term: 

It is written in the Torah: “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and the Lord of lords,” (Deuteronomy 10:17) and it is written afterward: “He executes the judgment of the fatherless and widow.” (Deuteronomy 10:18)

It is repeated in the Prophets: “thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is sacred,” (Isaiah 57:15) and it is written afterward: “In the high and holy place I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Isaiah 57:15). 

It is stated a third time in the Writings, as it is written: “Extol Him who rides upon the clouds, whose name is the Lord,” (Psalms 68:5) and it is written afterward: “A father of the fatherless, and a judge of widows.” (Psalms 68:6)

In a world where land and wealth were largely held by men and passed down to men, the fatherless and the widow were particularly economically vulnerable — after all, if you don’t own land and land equals wealth, then you are dependent on the support of others. In these verses, the all-powerful God explicitly (and exclusively!) works on behalf of these vulnerable populations. Humility here isn’t a downplaying of God’s accomplishments but God’s commitment to justice for those who are vulnerable.

The editors of the Talmud bring this teaching of Rabbi Yohanan in connection with their discussion of which Torah readings and haftarahs are read on which holidays — the text from Isaiah 57 being the haftarah for Yom Kippur. This is the connective tissue which leads the editors to cite Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching about this verse. 

The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that the haftarah from Isaiah was chosen for Yom Kippur because it discusses both repentance and fasting. Of course, when we read the passage from Isaiah ourselves, we likely notice that the prophet actually rejects the efficacy of fasting, and argues instead that we need to commit ourselves to justice for the economically vulnerable:

No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke. 

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58:6-7)

This kind of commitment takes effort and profound empathy. Rabbi Yohanan’s teaching connects this commitment to the greatness of God. After all, with great power comes great responsibility, and with great might comes (or should come) great humility. 

Read all of Megillah 31 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on January 12th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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