Earlier this week I read a very interesting article, "On Humility" by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The word humility is seen in all Jewish texts; in fact, it is the first step in learning Torah. Moses, the greatest hero of Jewish tradition, is described in the Bible as “a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” Rabbi Sacks contends in his article that “humility is the orphaned virtue of our age.” He states, ”there is a irrepressible human urge for recognition” and our culture has emerged out of various ways of “making a statement” rather than beliefs confessed in prayer.
He wrote about an interaction he had as a young man with the Lubavicher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. What was life altering for him is that in the Rebbe’s presence, Rabbi Sacks seemed like the most important person in the world. The Rebbe listened, asked questions and challenged him to become a leader. It is through this interaction, he states, “I then knew that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this soul-trait, humility, discussed in the learnings of Mussar, a spiritual perspective and discipline of transformational practices dating back to tenth century Babylonia. Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness said, “Proper humility means having the right relationship to self, giving self neither too big nor too small a role in life.”
After reading accounts of humility from a number of sources, I became enthralled with how humility presents itself in today’s world. How does one live in an environment where this trait is not necessarily valued or respected? I’ve noticed that the more pressure one feels, the less tolerance there is for another point of view, the less listening for understanding, and a bigger sense of arrogance around expectation and privilege one seems to exert.
I’ve been troubled by these behaviors when I have observed them in the stores where meat was not readily available early in the pandemic or supplies were limited. I have seen them where dialogue has turned to shouting matches and slogans have become mantras.
I wonder if we all paused and reflected on the privilege that many of us experience day in and day out and put the challenges we are going through in perspective, would we actually be a kinder, more gentle and humble society? Is that possible?
I believe it is. I think it’s about changing our mental constructs about life and what we are here to do. In Pirkei Avot it is said that we are all made in the image of G-d and our value is not based on what we do but who we are. Viewing ourselves from this vantage point teaches us we are all important and powerful. Rabi Levitas of Yavnah says, “not only should we respect each person, we must feel humble in their presence as well!”
For me, looking inside oneself and going back to our Judaic teachings has helped ground me during this time of great travail. I know who I want to be as a person and as a leader and it is through humility that I will continue to achieve these goals.
William Silverman in Rabbinic Wisdom and Jewish Values stated, “The brevity of human life reminds us that every hour must be used for some good cause, for a worthy purpose… and each individual must learn to use time wisely, reverently, and above all with humility.”
Make today the day. Spend Shabbat looking inside yourself. Appreciate all you have. Act with kindness and attend to others. Be humble, for the greatness of a person is precisely his/her humility. It is not about winning or having one step up, it’s about being! Be that special light for others. Your answers are all inside you.
“Humility is always a good thing. It’s always a good thing to be humbled by circumstances so you can then come from a sincere place to try to deal with it”. - Michael J. Fo