Of all the virtues, humility – Heb. ענווה anavah – is a foundation stone, for most other virtues grow from it including appreciation, gratitude, patience, respect, dignity, generosity, compassion, empathy, loving-kindness, doing justice, and pursuing peace.
The importance of humility is evoked in a Talmudic passage that is inscribed over many synagogue sanctuary arks around the world – “דע לפני מי אתה לומד – Da lifnei Mi atah omed – Know before Whom you stand” (1). This religious teaching reminds us of our finitude and limitations on the one hand and our capacity for spiritual and moral awareness and transcendence on the other, contrasting themes that frame what we are called by Jewish tradition to consider about our lives especially during the High Holiday season.
At one end of the spectrum upon which the virtue of humility appears are the extremes of pride, hubris, arrogance, conceit, vanity, egomania, self-aggrandizement, narcissism, hard-heartedness, and shamelessness. On the opposite end along the spectrum are the extremes of meekness, diffidence, submissiveness, subservience, victimization, humiliation, self-deprecation, self-denigration, self-denial, self-effacement, and a sense of unworthiness.
Where does the virtue of humility appear along this spectrum?
In thinking about this, I’m reminded of the short story called Bontshe Shvayg – Bontshe the Silent, first published in 1894 (2). This is a moving morality tale about a meek Jew who never spoke up for himself no matter what indignities he suffered at the hands of bullies, antisemites, and the chief prosecutor of the Holy Tribunal. In comparison, consider Moses who the Bible describes as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” (3).
Moses’ humility was a key virtue that led to his becoming the most important and intimate Prophet of God, and the most powerful man on earth. A rabbinic legend (midrash) explains:
One day God observed the shepherd Moses retrieving a lamb that strayed from his flock. Taking the diminutive creature lovingly into his arms, Moses cradled it tenderly and returned it to its mother. God said: “Since you tend the sheep of human beings with such compassion, you shall be the shepherd of My sheep, Israel” (4). Moses’s assumption of responsibility for his flock’s welfare and his compassion for even the most vulnerable creature are the character traits that caught God’s attention.
The Bible notes that when Moses heard the Divine voice call to him from the Burning Bush (5), Moses’ heart and soul opened to the experience of awe and wonder; but when God commanded Moses “בא אל פרעה – Bo el Paraoh…– Come into Pharaoh…” (6) and demand freedom for the enslaved Israelites, Moses demurred and resisted because he believed that he did not feel the requisite self-confidence, courage, or agency to confront the most powerful human being in the world. God reassured Moses. As God’s Prophet, the Almighty promised to put words into his and his brother Aaron’s mouths (7) and to send plagues that would shock and awe Pharaoh into submission so that the enslaved Israelites could be taken out of Egypt into freedom on their way to Mount Sinai to forge a covenant with God.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel noted that the ‘I’ of the prophet is God, meaning that God and the prophet walked together as one. The prophet felt sympathy for both God and for humankind, and when the prophet spoke, it was not the prophet alone speaking – it was God as well. The prophet’s humility, compassion, and empathy, commitment to and responsibility for others were the necessary character traits and virtues God sought in choosing each prophet. (8)
Louis Jacobs explained that humility occupies the golden mean along the spectrum (described above) between two extremes in the human character, from self-denial and unworthiness at one end, to pride and conceit at the other:
“… humble people are … confident and competent in themselves so much that, as a result, they seek to self-actualize by helping others. Humble people are still self-efficacious; they just don’t feel the impetus to boast about themselves but instead, let their actions speak for their ideals. To be humble is not to think less of oneself, but to think of oneself less” (9).
Bontshe Shvayg was an extreme victim beaten into submission. His was NOT “humility” according to Jewish tradition. It was humiliation. Humble people are different. They understand well who they are because like all human beings they are nobly born by virtue of being created “בצלם אלהים – b’tzelem Elohim – in the Divine image” (10). They accept readily as well their individual self-worth, virtues, talent, skill, capacity, and ability, but do not need to prove anything to anyone else. They do not brag nor boast nor call attention to themselves because they are too busy putting the interests of others before their own.
What does a humble person today look like? Rabbi Jacobs listed a number of habits of humble people (11):
Humble people base their decision-making on a sense of shared purpose rather than self-interest.
Humble people know how to listen without feeling they have to express their own opinions and narratives. They do not interrupt, nor do they self-reference when another is speaking. They understand that what others say is more valuable than what they think and feel at that moment and in that situation.
Humble people make room for others, exercise self-restraint, demur, defer, and take up no more space than is necessary or appropriate. They emulate God by undergoing what the mystics call tzimtzum ((צמצום, contraction within the self (12), in order to make space available for others to rise, act, take leadership, thrive, and contribute to the community. They do not need to have the final word. They permit the wisdom of others to prevail, and they speak only when asked or when it is their role to do so as a teacher, leader, mentor, or guide.
Humble people are forever curious and seek knowledge everywhere and all the time. They are perpetual learners. They realize that they do not have all the answers. They glean knowledge from the experiences of others and crave more opportunities to learn. They embody the Mishnaic sage’s dictum: “Who is wise? The one who learns something from everyone” (13).
Humble people put others at the forefront of their thoughts. They brag about others, giving credit easily to others while the prideful brag and take the credit for themselves. They do not call attention to themselves as experts. They have mastered the art of remaining silent so as to learn more from others and to be able to hear more astutely the stirrings of their own soul. As it is written: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel remarked: ‘All my days, I grew up among the Sages, and I have found no better attribute than silence.’” (14)
Humble people are receptive to constructive criticism and actively seek it out because they know that feedback is a valuable means towards their own self-improvement and evolution.
I offer below a few additional thoughts of others about the virtue of humility that can be helpful for us all during these Days of Repentance and Awe:
“Why was the human being created on the last day? So that if such a person is overcome by pride, it might be said: ‘In the creation of the world, the mosquito came before you” (15).
“When a person comes into the world his hands are closed as if to say, ‘The whole world is mine, I want to possess it.’ When he leaves the world his hands are spread wide as if to say, ‘I possessed nothing of what is in the present world’” (16).
“Appear always what you are and a little less” (17).
“In order to rise you must first descend” (18).
“Teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’” (19).
“It is taught in a baraita (20) in the name of Rabbi Meir: For what reason was the Torah given to the Jewish people? It is because they are impudent [Heb. עזים – Azim, meaning coarse or arrogant], and Torah study will weaken and humble them” (21).
“Humility is a river fed by two streams – a sense of limitation and a sense of awe” (22).
“Life is a long lesson in humility” (23).
“[Humility is]…a soft answer to a harsh challenge; silence in the face of abuse; graciousness when receiving honor; dignity in response to humiliation; restraint in the presence of provocation; forbearance and quiet calm when confronted with calumny and carping criticism” (24).
“For all our conceits about being the center of the universe, we live in a routine planet of a humdrum star stuck away in an obscure corner … on an unexceptional galaxy which is one of about 100 billion galaxies. … That is the fundamental fact of the universe we inhabit, and it is very good for us to understand that” (25).
“It was said of Reb Simcha Bunem, a 18th century Hasidic rebbe, that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. One was inscribed with the saying from the Talmud: בשבילי נברא העולם – Bish’vili niv’ra ha-olam, ‘for my sake the world was created’ (26). On the other he wrote a phrase from our father Avraham in the Torah: ואנכי עפר ואפר – V’anochi afar v’efer – I am but dust and ashes’ (27). He would take out and read each slip of paper as necessary for the moment” (28).
גמר חתימה טובה – G’mar chatimah tovah – May you and those you love and our people Israel be sealed in the Book of Life for a good, meaningful, purposeful, healthy, loving, generous, peaceful, and humble New Year.
- Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 28b (6th century CE)
- L. Peretz – Polish Yiddish writer (1852-1915)
- Numbers 12:3
- Exodus Rabba 2:2 (1200 CE)
- Exodus 3:2
- Exodus 10:1 – the Hebrew is curious as it uses the verb “לבוא – to come” instead of “ללכת – to go” to Pharaoh, which is the classic translation. Robert Alter, however, translates the verse literally: “And the Lord said to Moses, “בא אל פרעה – Come into Pharaoh, for I Myself have hardened his heart and the heart of his servants” suggesting the presence of God was even in Pharaoh’s hardened heart.
- Exodus 5:1
- Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972). See The Prophets, (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1955)
- Louis Jacobs, a British rabbi and theologian (1920-2006)
- Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion (Oxford University Press, 1995)
- Genesis 1:27
- צמצום – Tzimtzum (contraction within the Divine Self) is the basis for a cosmology of the universe developed by the mystic genius Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed (1534-1572) who imagined that in the beginning before creation, God occupied all space and time. In order to make room for the created world, God (Who was all light) had to withdraw some of that light and thereby placed it in huge vessels (כלים – keilim). But the power of the trapped light was so great that the vessels could not hold it and there was a great explosion (preceding the Big Bang Theory by 4 centuries) and the shards of the vessels (שבירת הכלים – shevirat ha-keilim – the breaking of the vessels) were flung to the four corners of the universe (ארבע כנפות הארץ – arba k’nafot ha-Aretz). Light was trapped in the shards. Luria believed that when Jews perform a מצוה – mitzvah (commandment) a small measure light is released from a shard and returns to God. When the entirety of the Jewish people perform mitzvot together, the Messiah will arrive announcing the restoration of the world (תיקון עולם – tikun olam) in which justice (צדק – tzedek), compassion (חסד – compassion) and peace (שלום – shalom) will prevail for all humankind and creation.
- Avot 1:4 (200 CE)
- Avot 1:17 (200 CE)
- Midrash Bereishit Rabba 8:1 (400-600 CE)
- Midrash Kohelet Rabba on Ecclesiastes 5:14 (650-900 CE)
- Greek proverb
- Chassidic wisdom (17th-18th century CE)
- Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 4a (6th century CE)
- A בריתא – baraita (Aramaic) is an oral law not included in the 2nd century legal code, the Mishnah.
- Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 25b (6th century CE)
- Rabbi Norman Hirsch (b. 1930)
- James M. Barrie (1860-1937)
- Rabbi Norman Lamm (1927-2020)
- Carl Sagan (1934-1996)
- Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 (2nd century CE)
- Genesis 18:27
- Martin Buber (1878-1965), Tales of the Hasidim: Later Masters (New York: Schocken Books, 1961), 249-250.