A common definition of humility is ‘The state or character of being humble; freedom from pride and arrogance.’, but this is incomplete as I will endeavour to highlight. It is also vital not to associate the word humiliation with humility as they really have no correlation.
Firstly though, as a human trait that rejects arrogance, humility is a vital foundation. Typically arrogance is seen in people who want power and control over others. But it can also be seen in people whose arrogance in their own superiority means that their opinion of others is so low that they want nothing to do with them.
Therefore, the failure to see the uniqueness and value of other people is in a sense a form of arrogance.
And the opposite of arrogance is humility. At its most basic foundations humility is an appreciative and thankful attitude that results in the awareness that everything we have is a gift, and that other people are equally important.
In this week’s Torah Portion (Shoftim) , the Torah is speaking about a king and it specifies three temptations to which a king in ancient times was exposed. A king, it says, should not accumulate many horses or wives or wealth – the three traps into which, centuries later, King Solomon eventually fell.
Then it adds:
“When [the king] is established on his royal throne, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this Torah … It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to be in awe of the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees and not feel superior to his brethren or turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time in the midst of Israel.” (Deut. 17:18-20)
If a king, whose subjects are bound to honour, is commanded to be humble – “not feel superior to his brethren” – how much more so the rest of us. Moses, one of the greatest leaders of all time, was “very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the earth” (Num. 12: 3). Was it that he was great because he was humble, or humble because he was great?
Alan Morinis, the author of Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar’ has some great wisdom to share on this topic. Here are a few of his thoughts on humility:
“Being humble doesn’t mean being nobody, it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.
Humility is associated with spiritual perfection. When humility effects depression it is defective; when it is genuine it inspires joy, courage and inner dignity.
Mussar (Jewish ethics – see an introduction here ) teaches that real humility is always associated with healthy self-esteem. Lack of self-esteem leads to unholy and false feelings of worthlessness.
Being humble doesn’t mean being nobody, it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.
If a leader as great as Moses was so humble then there is surely more to humility than the shrinking meekness we ordinarily associate with the term.
Too little humility — what we’d call arrogance or conceit — is easily seen as a spiritual impediment, but the opposite is also true. Too much humility also throws a veil across the inner light of the soul.
Humility is limiting oneself to an appropriate amount of space while leaving room for others….
This definition also fits Maimonides’ concept that humility is not the opposite of conceit, which would be self-effacement, but rather stands between conceit and self-effacement. Humility is not an extreme quality, but a balanced, moderate, accurate understanding of yourself that you act on in your life. That’s why humility and self-esteem go hand-in-hand.
When you understand humility in terms of the space you occupy, it’s important to clarify that we are not all meant to occupy the same amount of space. Some people appropriately occupy a lot of space, as would be the case with a leader — think of Moses again. But if a leader laid claim to even more space than was appropriate, they would be a Pharaoh …
Humility is the first soul-trait to work on because it entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of your strengths and weaknesses.
… Without humility, either you will be so puffed up with arrogance that you won’t even see what is really needing some work, or you will be so deflated and lacking in self-esteem that you will despair of being able to make the changes that are lit up so glaringly in your self-critical mind.” – from https://www.aish.com/sp/pg/48906552.html
I find it insightful to consider not just that arrogance is a rejection of humility, but that not ‘taking up less of the space you should be occupying’ also displays a lack of humility. I can understand why, but it then poses the question, how do you know that you have failing to ‘occupy the space’ you should be. It would seem much easier to recognize when you are arrogant and ‘feel superior’ to others, but not so easy to see when you are not being all that you can and should be.
I have often felt that I have not exercised the gifts that God has given me to the full extent possible and made the impact that I could and should have made on His behalf, and yet to even think such a thing might simply be an example of an arrogance of thought, in imagining myself more capable than I am and having more wisdom to share than is the reality.
So clearly, some introspection is always called for, but seeking to do ‘tikkum haolam’ (to help to repair the world), should never be seen as a failure or as arrogance, at least when the success of such endeavours is left to be judged by the Almighty. That is, perhaps I have occupied my ‘space’ to a fair and reasonable extent, but my error has been in not being able to see the full picture as I was not meant to – seeing the full picture of the contribution is a vision only given the God Himself.
Regardless of where you currently stand on your life’s journey, I think it a valuable exercise to try to be introspective occasionally and reflect on your ‘space’ and place, on your own sense of humility.
And perhaps there are some very trustworthy people in your life who can help you to assess the this soul-trait in you and whether it is in need of some correction, one way or the other.