February 10, 2013
A Reflection on Humility
Anivut (humility) has a very special priority in Jewish positive self-development. Rav Kook wrote (The Moral Principles, page 174) that “Humility is associated with spiritual perfection. When humility effects depression it is defective, when it is genuine it inspires joy, courage, and inner dignity.” In short, humility should not diminish our special personality traits; rather it should help us to become unique moral courageous agents of change.
Benjamin Franklin famously said that “to be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness.” The impulse to extend humility to all relationships is perhaps most imperative in our activist work. One who is organizing against the perpetuators of injustice can easily lose one’s sense of perspective while rallying in front of the morally “inferior.” It is at these moments, raising the prophetic voice for social change and justice, that humility is perhaps the most important for the Yid committed to tikkun olam.
This does not mean, G-d forbid, that humility should restrain someone from fully expressing their obligations as an activist. As Rambam pointed out (Shemoneh Perakim 4, p. 67), humility and self esteem are necessarily complimentary. One is to believe in one self and in one’s convictions while simultaneously expressing those beliefs and convictions in a way that acknowledges the infinite presence of the Ribbono Shel Olam in all of one’s work. For Rambam, humility is a moderate trait that should prevent one from acting arrogantly or from acting in a self deprecating manner.
May we all be blessed to take on practices that assist us in becoming beings of progress that stand on the “shoulders of giants,” as Newton famously articulated, while also maintaining consciousness of our human frailties and imperfections.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America!"