Beha'alotcha | Why is humility so Important?
Updated: Apr 20
Life is a tightrope of competing interests and demands. To navigate it requires balance. Work-life balance. Balanced finances. A balanced diet. Judaism, too, espouses balance. We avoid extremes.
The Rambam is well known for his Golden Mean – a formula for prescribing moderation in various character traits, and finding what he calls “the middle path”. But there are two exceptions, two areas where we ignore balance. Where the extreme is the ideal. The first is anger; we should always seek the extreme opposite of anger. And the second – the subject of our discussion this week – is humility. We should always strive for extreme humility.
“If a man is only [moderately] humble,” the Rambam writes, “he is not following a good path. Rather, he must hold himself humble and his spirit very unassuming.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 2:3).
The Rambam derives this lesson – about the importance of extreme humility – from a verse in this week’s parsha. The Torah describes the greatest leader of Jewish history, Moses, as follows: “Moses, the man, was very humble [more than] any person on earth.” (Numbers 12:3). Moses teaches us that there is no room for the middle path between arrogance and humility; that a person should always be extremely humble.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Ramchal, says humility is not only an imperative; it’s one of the highest spiritual and moral levels that a person can achieve. In his great ethical work, Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Upright), and based on a verse in the Talmud, he sets out an ascending ladder of spiritual greatness – and right near the top of the ladder is humility.
The Ramchal defines humility as a mindset – of not thinking one is better than others, and of feeling oneself undeserving of praise and honour. In this vein, Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his commentary on our parsha, points out that Moses, the person who led the Jewish people out of Egypt, who spoke with G-d Himself, who reached the pinnacle of human perfection, could have (perhaps with some justification) looked down on others. A person with lesser gifts than Moses would have had a more natural inclination towards humility. And yet he mastered himself and held others in great esteem, never looking down on them, never succumbing to arrogance.
But friends – how do we bring humility into our lives? The Ramchal outlines a four-step formula. The first step is to modify the way we speak, walk and sit: we should speak gently and kindly, we should not walk with a swagger, and we should not jostle for the most prominent seat in a room.
The second step is to get used to remaining silent in the face of insult: arrogant people who hold themselves in high regard take offence at the smallest slight, but humble people, while they recognise their self-worth and are comfortable with themselves, don’t become indignant at offence from others.
The third step to humility is to run away from honour and recognition. This applies especially, say our sages, in the context of leadership. The Torah outlook on leadership is summed up in a passage in the Gemara, where a sage who is appointing two young people for a leadership position, tells them: “Do you think I give you power and lordship [over others]? I give you service!” (Horiot 10a).
The fourth step is to practise giving kavod – honour – to other people. As it says in Pirkei Avot: “Who is honoured? One who honours people.” (Avot 4:1) The Mesillat Yesharim says there are many ways to honour others – from simply greeting people in a warm manner, to being extremely careful not to disrespect another person.
One of the most striking tributes to the value of humility comes from the Ramban – Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman. The Ramban was the Chief Rabbi of Catalonia. In 1263, he was challenged to a theological debate by Pablo Christiani, a Jewish convert to Christianity, in the presence of King James I. The Ramban emerged victorious, though was banished from Europe as a result. Fleeing to Israel, he wrote a famous letter to his son who had remained in Catalonia, laying out a few core Torah values to guide him in life. And it’s humility that features prominently in the letter.
“This sterling quality [of humility] is the finest of all admirable traits,” he writes. He advises his son to “speak gently to all people at all times [as] this will protect you from anger – a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin. Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart.”
He goes on to describe humility as the gateway to G-d consciousness. “Through humility the awe of G-d will intensify in your heart for you will always be aware of where you come from and to where you are destined to go…”
He writes of the futility of arrogance: “And now my son, understand clearly that one who is arrogant in his heart towards other people rebels against the sovereignty of heaven, for he glorifies himself in G-d’s own robes… For indeed of what should man be prideful? If he has wealth – it is G-d who makes one prosperous. And if honour – does honour not belong to G-d? If he takes pride in wisdom – let him understand that G-d may remove the speech of the most competent and take away the wisdom of the aged.”
And then he closes the argument. “Thus all people stand as equals before their Creator… he casts down the lofty… he elevates the downtrodden. Therefore humble yourself for G-d will lift you”. (This translation of the Ramban’s letter is, in the main, based on the ArtScroll edition of the letter.)
And so from the Ramban we see the constellation of Torah values which are founded on humility: gentleness, kindness, slowness to anger, awe of G-d and recognising Him as the source of all blessings; and at the heart of it all, the deep-seated belief in the equality of all people.
Indeed, it was this appreciation for the value of every human being that lay at the heart of Moses’ humility. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel points out that when the verse says: “Moses was the humblest of all people”, the literal translation of the Hebrew preposition used here is actually “from” not “of” – in other words: “Moses was the humblest from all people.” He explains that Moses’ humility was inspired by being able seeing the greatness – the image of G-d – in those around him.
If we adopt this mindset, then there’s simply no room for airs and graces. Humility becomes a natural state of being, and with it, self-mastery. It’s no coincidence that Moses, the greatest prophet ever, was also the most humble human being. Humility and greatness are two sides of the same coin.