Tag Archives: humble

Learning Smallness

smallThe words of the wise are heard with pleasantness.

Ecclesiastes 9:17

The Talmud states that on Friday afternoon, a person must alert his household to prepare the necessities for Shabbos. However, he must do so in a soft voice, so that his words will be obeyed.

Many late Friday afternoons, people feel themselves under pressure while rushing to prepare for Shabbos. If one sees that some things have not yet been done, it is easy to lose composure and scream at other members of the household. The Talmud cautions against doing so and implies that shouted instructions are less likely to be carried out.

A politician who had concluded an address inadvertently left a copy of his speech on the lectern. In the margins were comments indicating manners of delivery, e.g. “gesture,” “clap hands,” “slow and emphatically,” etc. At one point he had written, “Argument awfully weak here. Scream loudly.”

If we have something of substance to say, the message will be adequately conveyed in a soft tone, because the content alone will carry it. Only when our words have little substance do we seek to make an impression by delivering them with many decibels.

Even in situations of great urgency, we have no need to lose our composure. I can attest that when life-threatening emergencies presented themselves in the hospital, greater efficiency and more rapid response ensued when everyone kept a cool head.

The words of Solomon are correct. The wise speak pleasantly, and those who shout may not be wise.

Today I shall…

…keep my voice soft and pleasant at all times, especially when I have something urgent to communicate.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Tammuz 4”

That isn’t easy to do. A sudden surge of adrenalin as you see a small child run into traffic after a ball will make just about anyone yell, “Stop!” Of course, under that circumstance, a raised voice is perfectly understandable and justified, but most of the time when we raise our voices or otherwise try to push our weight around, it’s not.

Although we don’t generally have audible “voices” in the blogosphere, nevertheless, we tend to “yell” at each other. As Rabbi Twerski taught in the above-quoted paragraphs, human beings tend to yell the loudest when our positions are the weakest. We tend to attack others when we feel insecure about ourselves.

What should we do instead?

The Alter Rebbe writes in his Siddur: It is proper to say before prayer, I hereby take upon myself to fulfill the mitzva – “Love your fellowman as yourself.” This means that the precept of ahavat yisrael is the entry-gate through which man can pass to stand before G-d to daven. By merit of that love the worshipper’s prayer is accepted.

“Today’s Day”
Monday, Tammuz 2, 5703
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Sounds sort of like this:

He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 22:37-40 (NRSV)

forgive-nudnikI’ve wasted a certain amount of time being unkind lately. I’d like to say that I’ll never make that mistake again but I probably will. It’s a mistake because what I say won’t change people unless they want to change. It’s a mistake because what I’ve said does nothing to make me a better person. It’s a mistake because what I’ve said has distanced me from people I truly love.

I struggle between leaving the others who are sometimes abrasive to walk their path and the desire to inject a word of justice into unkind conversations.

But it never works out well for me or for anyone and it is not a path to God.

What is?

Nothingness is the medium through which all energy moves, from above to below and from below to above.

Below, in the human heart, a sense of nothingness that transcends ego. Above, a Nothingness that transcends all boundaries and planes.

The nothingness below fuses with the Nothingness above, locking heaven and earth in an intimate embrace.

That is why G‑d is found amongst the truly humble.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Moses was considered the most humble man on earth (Numbers 12:3) and yet Israel considers him their greatest prophet. Most of the “loud voices” on the Internet today (including mine) aren’t particularly concerned with humility and in fact, humility frightens them because they (we, I) consider it equivalent to being “nothing.” However as we’ve seen, nothingness is a desirable trait. So is being small, as Rabbi Freeman also teaches:

“Rebbe!” the man cried. “Nobody gives me respect! Everybody steps all over me and my opinions!”

—“And who told you to fill the entire space with yourself, so that wherever anyone steps, they step on you?”

hero-largeI think part of my desire to inject justice into other online realms is related to the sense of smallness. I experience being stepped on or seeing others step on those who I care about and I become indignant, like the person who cried out, “Rebbe! Nobody gives me respect!” I need to relearn humility as a desirable trait and as a result, learn to stop being concerned with the opinions and petty slights of others.

I mean, it’s not like I’m unaware of the humility of our Fathers or of my own experiences learning humility. If I focus on those areas where I need to improve and strive to encounter God with more dedication, I won’t have time to be concerned about the thoughts and opinions of others who seem to continually feel offended. I also may avoid offending those people I consider friends who may be hurt by what I say and do.

I suppose that at some point, maybe even fairly soon, I’ll encounter someone saying something that I object to and the temptation to respond will overwhelm my good sense. I pray that God will guard me from such a time and such individuals and most of all, guard me from my own foolishness in thinking that I must engage such people or express my own small opinion. The only thing I must do is to diminish in the Presence of God, and allow Him to overflow into the spaces I create in me.

Make yourself small and you will be great.

Know you are nothing and you will be infinite.

At the very least, don’t make such a big deal of yourself
and you will be all that much closer to the truth.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Small and Infinite”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

May God turn my heart and mind to Him alone and accustom me to seek the company of righteous people who are uplifting and inspiring. By being the lowest, sitting at the bottom of the abyss, I can only pray that He will one day raise me up to see light again.


47 Days: Learning Humility

Dear Rabbi:

I have a problem. It’s my ego.

I have been duly chiding myself and ever reminding myself that my accomplishments are only possible by G‑d’s good grace, so I should not feel any more accomplished than the guy next door.

But then I start wondering: am I never allowed to feel good about myself? How can you accomplish anything in this world if you never take credit for anything you do?


You are not alone in this struggle. This balance between letting go of ego and maintaining a healthy sense of self-confidence is an issue for all of us, simply because we are human.

We have G‑d given talents for a reason: So we can refine them, develop them and use them in our daily lives to serve our Maker. G‑d gives us the tools, but utilizing them to their full potential is up to us.

So we should be thankful and happy that G‑d has given us our unique talents, for it means that He thinks we can develop them and do good things with them. He believes in us. And as we develop an understanding about G‑d and who He is, we can deepen our appreciation for His belief in us.

G‑d’s belief in us is even more apparent when we look at our weaknesses, for that’s where the real challenge lies. G‑d gave us these major challenges because He knows we have the ability to overcome them and succeed. Contemplating this fact will certainly result in a happy and self-confident attitude about oneself.

-Rabbi Avi Davis
“Without Ego, How Can I Feel Good About Myself?”
from “Questions and Answers”

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10 (ESV)

All this sounds a lot like what I wrote about yesterday in relation to God’s sovereignty vs. our own over the world. Humanity went from being taken care of in creation to be the caretakers of creation because we desired it. We desired it more than we desired obeying God. Now, on the other side of the equation, we (well, those of us who are aware of God and His nature) realize that we really do need God and that the world is often too big for us to manage alone.

Well, anyway that’s how I feel. The world is too big for me to manage alone. Heck, even my life sometimes is to big and too messy for me to manage on my own. When don’t I plead to God to lend a hand (or two or five) in sustaining me and my family?

And yet amazingly, there are those, even in the community of faith, who don’t seem (at least in public) to have any concerns about their personal abilities whatsoever.

Even if the entire world considers you a tzaddik (pious and righteous), you should nevertheless think of yourself as if you were sinful.

-Niddah 30b

In 1965, I visited the Steipler Gaon, a sage whom people often consulted for medical advice. Since he had heard that I was a psychiatrist, he wanted to find out new developments in medications for mental illnesses. I related to the Gaon whatever I knew about the most recent advances.

“Is anything available that can cure someone from delusions?” he asked. I told the Gaon that delusions were very resistant to treatment, and that while antipsychotic medications could subdue overt psychotic behavior, the delusional thinking itself was difficult to eradicate.

“But what if someone has the delusion that he is the greatest tzaddik in the generation?” the Gaon asked. I could not restrain myself and laughingly replied, “No medication can cure that.”

The Gaon shook his head sadly. “Too bad,” he said. “That malady is so widespread.”

Delusions of any kind are a sign of mental illness. How sick a person must be to consider oneself a tzaddik, and how wise the Talmud was to caution us against developing such delusions!

Today I shall…

try to be honest with myself, and even if my behavior is such that people may think I am a tzaddik, I must not allow myself to be deluded.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Cheshvan 28”

This is certainly one delusion I don’t harbor within myself. I have great admiration for the tzaddikim who I encounter in both the Jewish and Christian communities (although I suppose truly righteous Christians would be referred to as “saints”). And yet there are some people, who are fortunately few in number in my corner of the blogosphere (at least since I’ve decided to respond to them differently) who seem to behave as if they were the most righteous people in our generation, apart from anything resembling humility.

There’s an irony here. I have found that those who have achieved great things and who are truly righteous before God are often quite humble. We see in Rabbi Twerski’s story that a man who may well have been one of the most righteous in his generation, did not desire to experience that awareness (I suspect he was speaking of himself and not others) and wanted to be “cured” of his “delusion.” Even Moses, the greatest of the Prophets, who lead millions of people through the wilderness for forty years and spoke “face-to-face” with God, was called the most humble man on the earth (Numbers 12:3).

Most of the time, truly accomplished individuals don’t have to go around telling everyone they are truly accomplished individuals, at least if they are secure in who they are (and secure in God). As we saw from the “Ask the Rabbi” question I quoted at the beginning of this missive, most of us (I include myself in this group) struggle to achieve a balance between humility and a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. And whenever one is in danger of becoming a little too arrogant as a tzaddik, as we see in Paul’s example, God provides a “thorn” or other reminder that he is (and we are) constantly dependent on the Providence of Hashem.

When we are aware of God and we become aware that we have a definite part in His plans for the world around us, sometimes there’s a temptation to take pride in that. It’s difficult for most of us to separate what God is doing through us and what we are doing ourselves. How are we to take pride and boast of God while not boasting of our own achievements?

For a true tzaddik, this doesn’t present much of a problem because they have reached such a spiritual level that their eyes are constantly on God and they can see it is His power and His will that is working in the world. The tzaddik is the instrument of that will, and it is the tzaddik’s job to take the talents God has provided him and refine them in the world for the sake of Heaven.

For the rest of us, we continually strive to realize what the tzaddik has learned. We must bend our will, submit to God, and refine our gifts without succumbing to self-pity, or out of a sense of victimhood, depression, because we feel we aren’t good enough as just who we are. On some occasions, it is exactly those individuals who have succumbed to their identity of “victimization” who appear, on the surface, to be the most arrogant and confident in who they are. In reality, they struggle a great deal (but in a futile way) to achieve a type of signficance from external situations which can only truly be achieved internally, between the person and God. Like Paul, we can only achieve significance in humility.

I have found a new sense of humility in my recent return to church and the challenges it has presented. I am in no sense the conductor of my own destiny within the church’s walls or within its community of souls. I am the recipient of acts of kindness and friendliness among hundreds of strangers who are also my brothers and sisters in Christ.

And yet, I haven’t “talked Christian” as such in many years, so each encounter is like visiting a foreign country for three hours a week and wondering how I can accomplish the “immigration” process to become a “citizen,” not of the Kingdom of Heaven, but of this particular body of believers.

In writing these words, I realize that one of the reasons God has put me where I am right now is to learn this very lesson. Whenever you encounter feelings of inadequacy, loneliness, isolation, and even embarrassment, stop for a minute or two and look at where you are and why you are there. Maybe it isn’t just a tough social situation or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Maybe you are in the right place in God’s time. For me, I believe, at least for now, church is where God put me to listen, not just to Him, but to everyone else.

We learn humility and even some modicum of righteousness like we learn anything else…by the doing.

God is in the Simple Places

If we were truly humble, we would not be forever searching higher paths on the mountain tops. We would look in the simple places, in the practical things that need to be done.

True, these are places in a world of falsehood. If the world only had a little more light, none of this would be necessary.

But the soul that knows its place knows that the great and lofty G-d is not found at the summit of mountains, but in the simple act of lending a hand or a comforting word in a world of falsehood and delusions.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“The Path of the Humble”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:3-11 (ESV)

The New Testament is full of lessons on and examples of humility. The idea is that we put God first in our minds and our hearts and our actions, and not seek to exalt ourselves. And yet as we see from the lesson of the Rebbe, even in seeking God on the highest mountain tops and even into the highest Heavens, we are not truly humble.

I suppose there’s a dichotomy involved. We have our feet on earth, yet our eyes gaze upward toward Heaven. The Divine spark within us is trapped in earthly flesh but seeks to return to its fiery Source. How can we really be humble once we realize that we have been made in the Holy image of the Creator of the Universe?

This can be a problem.

The problem is that we have a tendency to elevate ourselves in relation to those around us who do not realize that they too have been created in God’s image. God peppered the Bible with many lessons on remaining humble, and yet we seem to ignore them all.

Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” –Luke 14:7-11 (ESV)

Human nature tells us not to pass up an opportunity because it may never come again. If there is an open seat in a place of honor, our impulse is to sit in it. Sure, we know the parable I just quoted above, but this is real life, right? Parables and religious lessons are fine, but how much do they really apply to the day to day world? If we wait for God to raise us up to a place of honor, it may never happen.

And if it doesn’t, so what?

I mean, did God really say that you have to be so important or exalted among your peers?

Let’s change our point of view a bit.

The Alter Rebbe now explains that there are also two general levels in the love of G-d. The higher level is called ahavah rabbah (“great love”). It is a gift from above, granted to an individual after he has attained the level of yirah ila‘ah. This love is so lofty that one cannot hope to achieve it unaided.

The second and lower level of love is attained by contemplating G-d’s greatness. It is called ahavat olam (“eternal love,” and more literally, “love of the world”), because it emanates from one’s comprehension of the world, i.e., from one’s appreciation of the G-dly life-force that animates the world.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, middle of Chapter 43
By Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812)
founder of Chabad Chassidism
Elucidated by Rabbi Yosef Wineberg
Translated from Yiddish by Rabbi Levy Wineberg
and Rabbi Sholom B. Wineberg
Edited by Uri Kaploun

But for most of us, there’s something that has to happen before we can learn to love God in any capacity.

It has previously been noted that the higher level of love can come about only after one’s fear of G-d is total.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, end of Chapter 43

AweFear. In Jewish mysticism, there is a lower level of fear (yirah tata’ah) that we experience when we realize the truly awesome nature of God and understand the terrible consequences we have earned for our sins. It is said that fear comes before wisdom. It is also said that wisdom comes before fear of God, which seems a contradiction, but it’s not. Yirah tata’ah comes before wisdom, but there is a different sort of fear and awe that requires us to already be wise.

The explanation is as follows: The Mishnah refers to the two above-mentioned levels of fear. The first statement — “If there is no fear, there is no wisdom” — refers to the lower level of fear, yirah tata‘ah. Without this level of fear, it is impossible to attain wisdom, i.e., the performance of Torah and mitzvot. (This is deemed wisdom, since the ultimate purpose of wisdom is repentance and good deeds.) The second statement — “If there is no wisdom, there is no fear” — refers to the higher level of fear, yirah ila’ah. This level of fear must be preceded by wisdom, i.e., the performance of Torah and mitzvot. Only thus is one able to attain the higher level of fear.

Today’s Tanya Lesson (Listen online)
Likutei Amarim, beginning of Chapter 43

But what does this have to do with humility and setting aside our natural human inclination to seek honors for ourselves, even as we say we seek to honor God? How can we truly value and even desire humility? There are two ways.

The first is to make ourselves refrain from taking the seat of honor out of fear that, if we are discovered not to belong there, we will be publicly shamed and removed from the banquet. This is sufficient I suppose, but hardly desirable. How can we serve God out of a sort of “peer pressure” to conform, even as everything else we are in our hearts and minds screams the opposite?

The second way is to wisely realize that if we love God, we will obey Him and that His desires are always best for us, regardless of how we may or may not be seen in the eyes of people around us. The seat of humility may not be in the spotlight, but it might be very comfortable and even very instructive.

Ben Zoma says:
Who is wise?
The one who learns from every person…

-from Pirkei Avot 4:1

Most secular people avoid a life of holiness, in part, because they fear that their own needs and desires will be completely dismissed, and that they’ll be compelled to live a life of self-denial and frankly, boredom. However I’m sure that you, as a true person of faith, if you took the time to review the events of your life and the gifts of God, would realize that the benefits, even in a temporal sense, far outweigh the sacrifices. You may never become rich or famous or exalted in seats of honor in this life, but if you first learned to fear God and then to love Him, you know that what God has provided has been much more than sufficient.

God is sitting among those who are farthest from the seats of honor and He can be found in the simple places.