True Humility

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Ki Tavo 5770 – translated by R. Blumberg]

Question: I do not understand our Sages’ words: “Know where you came from – from a malodorous drop, where you are going – to a place of dust, worms and moths, and before whom you are destined to give a strict account – before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He” (Avot 3:1). Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto enlisted this source as an example of reflection that leads to humility (Mesilat Yesharim 23).
People have the feeling that if they feel inferior and have a low self-concept, they won’t amount to anything. If a person thinks he has worth, that constitutes an incentive to achievement, but if he is nothing but dirt and dust, he will sit in shame. How hard the psychologists, in the wake of Adler, worked to liberate man from his inferiority complex. It’s fine to be humble, but to view oneself as a “malodorous drop, worms and moths” seems like taking lowliness to an extreme.
Answer: First of all, our great master, the Rambam, indeed taught us that although in general one should not go to extremes but should stay in the middle, with humility we make an exemption: “The good path is not for one to be just humble, but rather to have a lowly spirit, even to extremes” (Hilchot De’ot 2:3). The proof comes from Moshe, himself: “The man Moshe was more humble than any person on earth” (Bemidbar 12:3).
Second of all, the Rambam proved in his “Guide to the Perplexed” that there is no need to be elite and prominent to serve G-d. We are not the ministering angels, but just simple people, and all the same, we serve G-d. Not only does the army’s chief-of-staff serve the homeland, but the simple soldier does too. There is no need for me to be special and to act in a conspicuous manner. After all, all that is insignificant compared to the great privilege of serving G-d and being His partner in the great enterprise of perfecting the world.
Every simple Jew has an enormous worth before G-d. The proof is the end of the Mishnah: “Before whom you are destined to give a strict account – before the Supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He.” That is G-d’s will – that we do our work faithfully. Our Sages said: “Some accomplish more and some accomplish less, but the main thing is that one should direct his heart to his Father in Heaven” (Berachot 17a). One should say: I don’t make light of myself. This is how G-d made me. I am insignificant compared to G-d and compared to others, but I am content with my lot and I do the best I can.” Quite the contrary, it is this humility which affords one strength. Consider that all of our greatest spiritual figures were humble. Avraham said: “I have already said too much before my G-d! I am mere dust and ashes!” (Bereshit 18:27). Moshe and Aharon said: “What are we that you should complain against us?” (Shemot 16:7). And King David said: “After whom has the King of Israel come out? Whom do you pursue? A dead dog. A flea.” (Shmuel 1 24:14), and “I am a worm, and no man, a reproach of men, and despised of the people” (Tehilim 22:7).
In other religions as well, they spoke much in praise of humility, but that may be classed as “all talk and no action”. We have not seen that their rulers are exemplary humble people. Even Plato’s vision of a philosopher king, adorned in humility and all the other fine traits remains in the realm of a pious wish. Quite the contrary, Joan of Arc was a simple seventeen-year-old girl, not a member of the nobility, not learned and not even able to read or write, and besides all else, she was a woman and not a man. She was humble, simple, and innocent, and as a child, she loved to pray, which made her the object of scorn by young people her age. Yet thanks to her innocence, bravery and enthusiasm, she rose up and saved France from English conquest. All the same, the French could not bear that. They sold her to the English, and the Church burnt her at the stake. Only later on did they admit their error, but by then it was too late.
We say: “The humble shall inherit the earth” (Tehilim 37:11). The greater a person, the more humble he is. Every Torah scholar uses the expression, “In my humble opinion,” and signs his writings, “Humbly.” Our master Ha-Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook would sign, “A servant of the holy Nation on the holy soil.” Even the King of Israel was commanded “not to let his heart become higher than that of his brothers” (Devarim 17:20).
We mustn’t confuse humility with self-hate or self-derision. Humility does not mean dissatisfaction with one’s good deeds. Quite the contrary, if I am insignificant and I have succeeded in doing a good deed, then that is very great indeed, and how happy I should be! By contrast, the arrogant person will disparage his own achievements, thinking them unsuitable to his self perceived abilities and exalted spiritual level.
How fortunate we are to have been privileged to be a Nation of the humble.