The Most Humble Person Who Ever Lived

I know no completely righteous person in the sense that Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the founder of Chabad Lubavitch who authored “The Tanya,” meant it. The Alter Rebbe (as he is known) delineates five moral/spiritual categories of people – the completely righteous (tzaddik gamur), the righteous (tzaddik), the completely evil (rasha gamur), the evil (rasha), and the “in-betweeners” (beinonim).

The vast majority of us are beinonim – neither righteous nor evil – and though many of us may strive to behave as tzaddikim and even seem to be tzaddikim from the outside because of our kindness and good deeds, still the yetzer hara  – the evil inclination – as opposed to the yetzer tov – good inclination – distracts and confuses us in our struggle to remain moral, kind, generous, empathetic, and spiritually pure.

The tzaddik gamur – the completely righteous person – is different from the ‘simple’ tzaddik in that in the in the simple tzaddik there is the taint of the evil inclination. Complete tsaddikim subsumed completely the evil in their hearts and souls. Such people are among the legendary 36 righteous human beings – lamed vavniks – whose presence in the world enables the world to survive. Such people “pursue justice, love compassion and walk humbly before God.” (Micah 6:8) 

In this week’s Torah portion B’ha-a-lo-techa (Numbers 8:1-12:16) we read that Moses was “a very humble man, more so than any other person on earth.” (12:3) The Hebrew word for ‘humble’ is anav and appears only one time in the five books of Moses – here. Given Moses’ extraordinary career as a prince, shepherd, prophet, liberator, chieftain, military leader, and judge, it’s legitimate to wonder what “humility” meant as it applied to Moses.

Moses was not a shrinking violet. He was not self-effacing, didn’t lack in confidence, and was not a pacifist. He killed an Egyptian, challenged Pharaoh, crushed a rebellion, killed by sword 10,000 of his own people after the golden calf incident, spoke face to face with God, broke the divinely inscribed tablets, argued with and challenged God.

This passage from Proverbs offers a sense of the meaning of anivut: “The effect of humility is awe of God, wealth, honor, and life.” (22:4)

According to the Biblical and rabbinic traditions, humility is based in an awareness of one’s self that comes about as a result of our awareness of God – meaning, our perception of the creative intelligent unifying power in and beyond the universe that transcends human comprehension and inspires awe and wonder, gratitude, generosity and love.

The Talmud and Midrashic literature categorically condemn arrogance and close-mindedness, the opposite of humility. Rabbi Yochanan said in Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai’s name, “[Those] who [are] arrogant [are] as though [they] worships idols.” (Talmud, Sota 4b). Such people are called toevah – an abomination, who see themselves only, leaving no room for the Shekhinah, the Divine Presence.

A story is told of an American professor of religion who wished to meet a particular Buddhist monk. After the westerner’s long and arduous journey, the monk received him on a mountain top and welcomed him to sit quietly with him on his mat. Another monk brought tea and placed it before the two men. The famous monk began pouring the tea into a cup and kept pouring until the tea overflowed the cup and the saucer onto the mat. At last, the professor couldn’t maintain his silence and said, “Master – what are you doing? Can’t you see that the cup is full and tea is pouring out everywhere?”

“Ah,” said the sage. “So too are you so full of your own ideas that there’s no more room for anything new or different.”

That is the nature of arrogance. It’s closed, rigid, intolerant, presumptuous, prejudiced, fearful, hateful, angry, self-centered, and nasty at its core. It’s motivated by the yetzer hara – the evil impulse. The opposite of arrogance is anivut – humility – and the yetzer tov – good impulse – motivates and inspires it.

The world, our nation, and too many of our national leaders in the United States and Israel are in desperate need of this virtue.


About the Author
A native of Los Angeles, Rabbi John L. Rosove assumed the position of Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1988 and will become Emeritus Rabbi in July, 2019. Before coming to Temple Israel he served large congregations in San Francisco (1979-86) and Washington, D.C. (1986-88). He is the immediate past National Chair of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA) and served on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), the Vaad HaPoel of the World Zionist Organization, and the Executive Committee of ARZENU (the International Reform Zionist movement). He is a national co-Chair of the Rabbinic and Cantorial Cabinet of J Street. John is the author of "Why Judaism Matters – Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Nashville: Jewish Lights, 2017) and his forth-coming book "Why Israel and its Future Matter - Letters of a Liberal Rabbi to his Children and the Millennial Generation with an Afterword by Daniel and David Rosove" (Ben Yehuda Press, New Jersey. November 29, 2019). John is married to Barbara and is the father of two sons and the grandfather of one.