The Humility of Our Fathers

HumilityBe humble before every manEthics of Our Fathers, 4:10

Is there no one out there who is dumber, uglier or more selfish than yourself? Okay, discount the few dozen degrees of inferiority that are due to your ego-inflated self-perception. Still, is there no one on earth who is less worthy than you?

So what does it mean to “be humble before every man”? Is the Mishnah telling us that it is our moral duty to underrate ourselves?

To do so would be a sinful waste of our G-d-given talents, which can never be optimally realized unless we are aware and appreciative of what we have been given and what we have accomplished. In the words of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch: “Just as it is imperative that a person recognize his own shortcomings, it is no less crucial that he recognize his advantages and strengths.”

How, then, does a person make a true evaluation of himself, for the worse and for the better, and at the same time experience a genuine feeling of humility before every other individual?

ETHICS OF OUR FATHERS: Humility: Two Definitions (Chapter 4)
Sivan 27, 5771 * June 29, 2011
Chabad.org

Now the man Moses was very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.Numbers 12:3

@soulsupply: 2day #JESUS must increase and I must decrease – Jn 3:30 -from Twitter

I’m sure this topic has been well documented in Jewish and Christian circles already, but as must as it is discussed, the humility of the faithful never seems to be settled. It’s still something of a mystery, at least on the surface, how Moses, a man who led millions of people for over forty years, and who has been revered by the Jewish people for 3500 years up to this very day, can be called the most humble person of “any man who was on the face of the earth”. It would seem as if humility before all men and demonstrating leadership, assertiveness, and authority would be all but mutually exclusive.

On the other hand, we have this:

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. –Matthew 11:29

Whether you are a Christian or not, it’s virtually impossible to avoid the fact that Jesus is one of the most influential people who has ever existed in the history of humanity. You can find people who have heard something about Jesus almost anywhere on the planet. Even people belonging to religions greatly opposed to Jesus and people who are agnostics and atheists have heard of Jesus. His words are quoted in the most secular publications and everyone from wise men to corporate CEOs have studied how his teachings have inspired millions. How can you call the King of King and the Lord of Lords “gentle and humble in heart”, especially in the light of the following?

I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. –Revelation 19:11-16

Both Moses and Jesus are described as humble. Both Moses and Jesus command great authority and demand unbounded respect. How can these things go together and especially, how can these things go together in us? The Chabad commentary takes a closer look.

The humble man looks at the larger picture rather than the particulars, at the unified purpose of life on earth rather than only at his function within this purpose. No matter how lofty his own role may seem in relation to his fellow’s, he is grossly limited without him. The knowledge that his own life’s work is incomplete without his fellow’s contribution will arouse feelings of humility and indebtedness toward his fellow: he recognizes that even the coarsest “limb” of the mutual body fulfills a deficiency in himself.

One way to look at humility is that, no matter how many good and fine qualities you possess, including great leadership skills, you don’t stand alone. You are a part of a greater whole and without the other members of that whole, you would not be “great” or “accomplished” or “skilled”. Paul said it this way:

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. –1 Corinthians 12:21-26

Continuing with the Chabad commentary:

In this approach, humility is not equated with a sense of inferiority. Rather, it stems from a feeling of equality and mutual need. In becoming humble, a person first realizes that any greater measure of intelligence, refinement, spiritual sensitivity, etc., that he may divine in himself in relation to his fellow is nothing to feel superior about: these are only the tools that have been granted him for his individual role. He also recognizes the limitations of his own accomplishments, and the manner in which they are fulfilled and perfected by the “body’s” other organs and limbs. So he is humbled by the ability of his inferior fellow to extend and apply their shared mission on earth to areas that lie beyond his individual reach.

You can be humble when you realize that, even if you are the “brain” or the “heart” of the body, you need the foot, the spleen, the fingernail, and every other part in order to be whole and well. Once you realize that, you can be humble and grateful for the other parts of the body. You aren’t any less an important body part just because other body parts exist. The brain might feel mighty important until a hammer smashes into one of the thumbs.

The commentary has another way to look at this matter, though:

The second approach, however, defines “humility” in the more commonplace sense – as a feeling of inferiority in relation to one’s fellow. How is this truly and truthfully achieved in relation to every man? By conducting a thorough evaluation and critique of his own moral and spiritual standing. In doing so, one is certain to find areas where he has failed to prove equal to what is expected of him. That his fellow may be guilty of the same or worse is irrelevant: concerning his fellow’s behavior he is in no position to judge. “Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place” say our sages, for you have no way of knowing how his nature, his background, and the circumstances surrounding any given deed may have influenced his behavior. However, regarding your own behavior you are “in his (i.e., your own) place” and in a position to know that, despite all the excuses and justifications you may have, you could have done better. With such an approach, a person will “be humble before every man” in the most literal sense of the term, perceiving his every fellow as superior to himself.

HumbleThis is probably the less comfortable of the two approaches because it requires that you deliberately make yourself of lesser importance than others, even when, objectively speaking, you may not be. However, the Master, near the end of his life among men, showed us an example of that, too:

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. –John 13:2-5

In Shakespeare’s play Henry V, the young King disguises himself as a commoner speak to his soldiers before battle and to learn to understand the thoughts and feelings of his subjects. While Jesus wasn’t “in disguise” (unless you consider that during his First Century life, he appeared, not as King, but as teacher and “shepherd”), he did perform a servant’s task to illustrate a point. This doesn’t mean he was being insincere; I truly believe Jesus did live out the life of a servant and, even though he did not have to take the position of virtual slave to his disciples in washing their feet, he was trying to communicate, not only that they should follow his example, but that he really was a servant of all people, “even unto death”.

Considering yourself worthless and uninteresting isn’t humility and neither is feeling superior to others. Wallowing in your failures shouldn’t define your entire existence and neither should basking in your highest successes. All of this is part of you and two of the most difficult temptations to resist is the temptation to feel irredeemable when you fail terribly, and the temptation to brag and lord it over others when you achieve your greatest success. Everything in-between those two extremes is who you really are. When you can bring your failures and your successes to the meeting table, introduce them to each other, and teach them to co-exist in a unified life, then you will be actually, realistically, and successfully humble.

If, as disciples of Jesus, we are supposed to learn his teachings by imitating him, then humility, not self-denigration, is a lesson we dare not ignore. Far from being a liability, humility connects us to the source of our most profound strength.

Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every man. As is stated: “From all my teachers I have grown wise, for Your testimonials are my meditation.”

Who is strong? One who overpowers his inclinations. As is stated, “Better one who is slow to anger than one with might, one who rules his spirit than the captor of a city.”

Who is rich? One who is satisfied with his lot. As is stated: “If you eat of toil of your hands, fortunate are you, and good is to you” ; “fortunate are you” in this world, “and good is to you”—in the World to Come.

Who is honorable, one who honors his fellows. As is stated: “For to those who honor me, I accord honor; those who scorn me shall be demeaned.”

Ethics of Our Fathers 4:1

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8 thoughts on “The Humility of Our Fathers”

  1. I think the most succinct definition I’ve yet heard goes like this:
    Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.

    Shira

  2. Good thoughts. That is an interesting question, as to how one can do great and powerful things and yet remain humble. Perhaps we need to keep reminding ourselves of the nature of ancient Jewish thought, that action, not being, was the focus. So, to be humble was not about how one viewed oneself, whether in relation to others or not, but about how one behaved, taking upon oneself the lowliest tasks in order to fulfill the divine purpose. Moshe left the power and wealth of Egypt, as the Master left behind the power and wealth of heaven.

    1. @Chaya — It seems to me that maintaining humility, regardless of one’s achievements great or small, may be simply a function of the standard with whom we compare ourselves, whether against other people or against the vision of perfection that HaShem holds in mind for each of us. In many synagogues, a Talmud phrase from B’rachot 28b is posted above the Torah Ark: “דע לפני מי אתה עומד” (D’a Lifnei Mi Atah ‘Omed; Know before Whom you stand). That applies, of course, not only to one’s presence in a synagogue but also at every moment in every place. I found the following similar observation online: [http://www.oztorah.com/2007/06/know-before-whom-you-stand-ask-the-rabbi/]. For those who wear a kippah with the understanding attached to its Yiddish identification as a “yarmulkah”, which is an elision of the phrase “Yirah mul Kah” meaning “Fear/Reverence/Awe vis-à-vis Y-H [HaShem]”, the implications toward humility should be obvious and undeniable — however, one may maintain such an attitude and perspective even without wearing a kippah to remind oneself to do so.

  3. Wow. This blog post was resurrected after laying dormant for quite some time.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve read some things about humility lately. Riverton Mussar’s middah for this week is humility, and Abraham J. Twersky wrote recently at Aish.com about accepting dependency as opposed to self-sufficiency.

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