“My Thoughts on Humility”


Last week I began my Mussar cycle and studied the first middah – anavah (humility). It was a productive and enlightening study!

The introduction to Everyday Holiness says: “Spiritual truths are not so much learned as recalled. Some ideas that we encounter, even if for the first time, don’t strike us as new information but more like memories being reawakened within us. It is as if our hearts innately possess these truths and so we don’t need lessons, only reminders of wisdom that we already know. These reminders awaken us, and then we see life more clearly and we know what we must do.”

In my mind, I thought I knew what humility was all about. However, over the course of the week, I was reawakened to the bigger picture of humility and its true definition.

 Humility is not an extreme. It’s balanced in between pride and self-debasement.

Humility is an accurate recognition of self, neither too grand or too diminished.

Real humility is always associated with a healthy self-esteem.

 Generally, humility is the first middah one studies in the Mussar cycle. In Duties of the Heart, Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda helps direct our attention by posing a question: “On what do the virtues depend?” His answer is clear, “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.”

The importance of humility is underlined in the Talmud, where we read: “One who sacrifices a whole offering shall be rewarded for a whole offering. One who offers a burnt-offering shall have the reward of a burnt-offering. But one who offers humility to G-d and man shall be rewarded with a reward as if he had offered all the sacrifices in the whole world.”

“The Mussar teachers stress that humility is a primary soul-trait to work on because it entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of who you are. Without this accurate self-awareness, nothing else in your inner life will come into focus in its true measure.”

Just as you can’t work on perfecting the middot in your life without true humility (honest self-assessment), you cannot obtain humility without a healthy self-esteem.

It’s obvious that pride and arrogance are antithetical to humility. But a low opinion of self or self-worth has no relation to true humility either!

True humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less. – Timothy Keller

As someone who is naturally a bit shy and introverted – this was a great lesson!

I have negative experiences affect my self-esteem in a big way and I don’t always speak up when I have something to say for fear of saying the wrong thing.

I learned it is equally as important for people who are timid and perhaps shy, to understand their level of humility better. “Someone who is too humble might find themselves in a situation where action is call for, but they think to themselves “who am I to act?” As Mordechai said to Esther, “It’s such a time as this…” Someone with a weaker ego (sense of self-worth) might think that they are not worthy of the task.”

 I am worthy of the task, and I need to sacrifice what I think is humility to act on another’s behalf.

A story in the Talmud helped me begin to get a sense of the distinctively Jewish understanding of humility:

The passage begins: “The anivut [humility] of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas caused the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem” (Gittin 55b-56a). This was a cataclysmic event in Jewish history that is still mourned today. How could a virtue like humility cause so terrible a catastrophe?

To understand, we have to enter the story a bit earlier, when a man named Bar Kamtza sought revenge on the Jewish leaders of Jerusalem, by going to the Romans to claim that the Jews were rebelling. To prove his point, he told the Roman leadership to send a sacrifice to the Temple. Normally such a sacrifice would be offered up, but Bar Kamtza caused a minor blemish on the animal that was unnoticeable to the Romans, but which he knew the rabbis would see and so refuse to accept the offering. This refusal would be “proof” that the Jews were in rebellion against Rome.

When the sacrifice came before the rabbis in the Temple, they noticed the hidden blemish, and understood immediately what was going on. One sage suggested that they offer the sacrifice anyway. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, however, argued that if they did so, people would draw the incorrect conclusion that it was permitted to offer blemished sacrifices.

The rabbis then suggested that Bar Kamtza be killed to prevent him from telling the Romans and endangering the Jewish people. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas responded again, by saying, “If we do so, then people will incorrectly think that those who inflict blemishes on sacrifices are put to death.”

As a result of this unwillingness to accept either course of action, Bar Kamtza succeeded in his plan. The sacrifice was denied, and the Romans took this as proof of a Jewish rebellion. The Romans attacked and ultimately destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.

The Talmud concludes: “The anivut of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas caused the loss of our home, the burning of our sanctuary, and our exile from the land.”

What can we learn of the Jewish concept of humility from the story of Zechariah ben Avkulas?

Rabbi Zechariah showed humility because he did not act with presumption — either by offering a blemished animal that contravened the rules, or by condoning murder. But he actually manifested too much humility in shrinking from the task at hand. He held the fate of the Temple and his people in his hands, yet he seems to say, “Who am I to make such unprecedented decisions that will potentially mislead the people as to the law?” This was his excessive humility. His sense of self was flawed because he saw himself as less capable of solving a real-life dilemma of great consequence than he actually was. For surely if God sent the challenge, Rabbi Zechariah had the capability to handle it.”

Another of my favorite stories was of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pschishe who used to carry two notes in his pockets, so that he could reach in to fetch out one or the other, depending on the need. One said “For my sake was the world created” (Mishnah – Sanhedrin 4:5). The other had the words: “I am dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27).

I learned from Orchot Tzaddikin (The Ways of the Tzaddikim), that humility manifests itself in six ways.

  • In the intensity of a man’s anger. If he is greatly shamed by word or deed and is in a position to take revenge but forgives the other for the sake of the Blessed Creator – this is a sign of humility.
  • If one suffers a great loss and he vindicates G-d’s justice, accepting all with love, this is a strong sign of humility and submissiveness.
  • If one hears people praising him for his wisdom and good deeds he should not rejoice in his heard, but rather reflect that his good deeds are very insignificant to what he ought to do, being like a drop in the great ocean.
  • If the Blessed One graces a man with wealth and children and He gives him wisdom in abundance, understanding, and honor; he should be even more humble and lowly before the Blessed Creator and honor men and pursue their good to an even greater extent than before.
  • If one reproves himself for having harmed another in word or deed and goes of his own volition, without another’s intercession, and asks for forgiveness, humbling himself before him, undoing the wrong, and speaking ingratiatingly – this, too, is a sign of humility.
  • One should be given to soft words. And one should not preoccupy himself with beautiful garments and adornments. And he must not be given to luxuries. All these are signs of humility.

Lastly, as a parent of two toddlers this quote was a good reminder, “Another extremely good form of humility is humbling oneself before one’s students, explaining everything that is difficult to them – to the older one on his level and to the younger one on his. And he should explain again and again with a pleasant expression and demeanor until they understand, and not say: “How can I answer so that he understands; his heart is as hard as stone!” But he must review the matter patiently numerous times. We are familiar with the reward of Rabbi Preida (Eruvin 54b), who reviewed a lesson four hundred times for the benefit of one student.”

 My Mussar phrases for the week were:

 “Always seek to learn wisdom from every man, to recognize your failings and correct them. In doing so, you will learn to stop thinking about your virtues and you will take your mind off your friends faults.” – Rabbi Mendel of Satanov (Cheshbon ha-Nefesh)

“Upon the heels of humility comes fear of Hashem.” (Shekalim 9b.)

“For my sake the world was created… I am but dust and ashes.”

“Know before whom you stand.”

My psukim of the week were:

 May He guide the humble in to justice; may he teach the humble His ways. Ps. 25:9

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:8

My Mussar practices for the week were:

In a conversation, focus intently on what the other person is saying and not on what you will say next.

Practice active listening and talk less.

Prefer someone’s needs over yours.

When someone says something that does not agree with your opinion, consider holding your tongue and letting it go.

And my favorite…

 “As you are in the presence of another person, whether in conversation or activity, take a few deep breaths. Focus on the verse, “Know before whom you stand.”

While this verse is typically used to bring us before Hashem in humility and induce proper kavanah (focus) for prayer, it can also help us to guard ourselves in front of others – for they too are made in the image of Hashem.”

“If we are able to have a better understanding of whom you stand before on this planet, you can better know Whom your stand before in the Heavens.”

 Shalom Chaverim,




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