Close your eyes and imagine a humble person…
What do you see? If you are like me, you likely envision a sweet person, silent, walking with a bent head, wearing threadbare clothes, with few attachments to the world.
Humility is often connected to negating one’s own worth and thinking, “I am nothing and I am worth nothing” – as it is often described in many religions and countless books on humility. In Judaism, it is actually the opposite. Humility is about understanding your real worth in the world, possessing a healthy degree of self-esteem, but not being arrogant about it.
This dichotomy of humility is beautifully expressed in the duality of the Torah readings of the last two weeks: Bamidbar (“in the desert”) and Behar (“in the mountain”) and how they are connected for the preparation of our upcoming holiday, Shavuot, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.
Our Sages tell us that the reason why Mount Sinai was chosen, was that it was the most humble of all mountains. Nice idea, but what bothers you with this interpretation?
Many commentators ask that if it was to teach humility, then why was the Torah not given in a lowly valley instead? After all, a valley in the desert is even more humble than a mountain. The Kotzker Rebbe answers: Yes, a valley is more humble than a mountain, but the message to us that we should not descend, rather, we should ascend. Humility is not about focusing downward, but about ascending and moving upwards.
The challenge, however, is that when you move up, when you achieve higher levels of greatness, how do you proceed without compromising your sense of humility?
This is the tension in ourselves that we constantly need to reconcile: having humility but still striving for greatness, or striving for greatness but never loosing our humble mindset.
This idea of the tension and reconciliation is no better expressed than in the following story about Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, who always carried two slips of paper with him – one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one paper was written the words of Avraham, “I am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), i.e., remember where you come from and what will be left of you. On the other paper was written the Talmudic statement, “The entire world was created just for me” (Sanhedrin 37a).
My favourite definition is by CS Lewis: “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”
Epilogue: On Arrogance
Rebbe Rafael of Barshad said the following: “When I come to heaven, I will be asked, ‘Why didn’t you learn more Torah?’ And I can answer that I’m slow-witted. Then I will be asked, ‘Why didn’t you do more chessed (kindness) for others?’ And I can answer that I’m physically weak. Then I will be asked, ‘Why didn’t you give more Tzedakah (charity)?’ And I can answer them that I didn’t have enough money. But then I will be asked, ‘If you were so slow-witted, weak, and poor, why were you so arrogant?’ And for that I will have no answer.”