The Talmud relates that God gave the Torah on Sinai because Sinai is a small mountain. It is intended to teach us humility; great things can come from unassuming places.
If this is true, asks a later sage, why not give the Torah in a valley? That would really teach humility! His answer is that for a valley to be humble is no great feat. The key is to be humble if you are a mountain. Thinking yourself worthless is not humility. To understand that you have gifts and blessings and yet remain modest is an achievement of character.
For junior year abroad I studied at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. Enchanted with English poetry, I wrote a letter to my father telling of my love of Wordsworth, the romantic poets, the wonder and variety of English verse. My father, who was a devotee of literature and my first teacher, wrote back that he was glad I found inspiration and nourishment in them. But then he added something important.
In Annie Dillard’s book “For the Time Being,” she tells the story of a British district officer named James Taylor in highland New Guinea, now Papua New Guinea. In the 1930s, Taylor made contact with a mountain village perched at 3,000 feet above sea level, whose tribe had never seen a trace of the outside world. One day, on the airstrip hacked from the mountains near his village, one villager cut vines and lashed himself to the fuselage of Taylor’s airplane shortly before it took off.
We say that clocks go tick-tock. But they don’t. They go tick-tick. We supply the tock.
This observation, made by literary critic Frank Kermode in his classic work “The Sense of an Ending,” is a product of the human need for endings. We can’t stand to listen to music without the final resolving chord; we don’t like movies that refuse to wrap up neatly. We check how many pages are left in the book until we get to the ending. Tock.
A charming story from the late, beloved Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Waxman. Once while visiting Greece, he was invited out to dinner. On the way, stopped to buy flowers for his host from a vendor in the street. He asked the price. The vendor said “26 drachmas.” When Rabbi Waxman reached into his wallet to pay him, the vendor said: “That’s not how it works.
Why is it that when we think badly of others, we are convinced of our smarts? How often have I spoken to someone who interprets another’s actions in a negative light, and when I urge them to consider the positive possibilities, I am answered by an indignant, “Rabbi, do you think I’m stupid?” Somehow believing the worst about another is taken as a sign of intellect; judging others the way the Mishna advises — that is, favorably — is thought gullible and weak-minded.