Offered on the first day of Rosh Hashana 5778
The story is told of a rabbi who, one Kol Nidrei eve, was overcome with emotion as he recited the opening prayer that acknowledges the sins of the synagogue’s leaders and asks for God’s help to lead the congregation. He threw himself on the floor before the open ark and cried out, “God, I am a nothing!” When the Cantor heard the murmur of approval from the congregation, he also threw himself down and shouted, “God I am a nothing!” As the buzz in the congregation grew even louder, the synagogue president followed suit, practically screaming as his body hit the carpet, “God, I am a nothing!” At which the Cantor nudged the rabbi and whispered, “Hmm, look who wants to be a nothing now.”
Humility—a modest view of oneself and one’s own importance—isn’t something that a lot of people identify with as a personal virtue or quality. In fact, the watchword of our time may be the exact opposite—arrogance, or when a person thinks that he knows it all and that she doesn’t need to improve because she’s already so great. There’s a lot of arrogance around us—in our politics, in our national discourse, in our society’s emphasis on the importance and centrality of the self. And there’s not enough humility displayed around us. And that’s regrettable because the virtue of humility, one that is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, is an important key to building a society that is guided by tolerance, coexistence and harmony, qualities that often seem to be sorely lacking in our nation and our world.
The Jewish tradition urges us to embrace the attribute of anavah, or humility, repeatedly declaring it to be the greatest of all the moral virtues. What exactly is it that the Talmudic sages want us to emulate? They emphasize the importance of placing our sense of personal significance in check. They point to the heroes of the Bible as role models of suppressing boastfulness and excessive pride. Abraham refers to himself as being “dust and ashes.” Moses famously resists God’s call to lead his people out of slavery because he feels that he is underqualified and unworthy for the task. Throughout the centuries, Jewish philosophers and sages counsel us to underestimate our own worth and value, at least in the way we present ourselves to others. The Spanish mystic and philosopher Nachmamides, gave this advice to his children in his Ethical Will: “Let your voice be low and your head bowed; let your eyes turn earthwards—every man should seem in your own eyes as one greater than yourselves.” Even the High Holiday Machzor is overflowing with phrases that try to persuade us that we shouldn’t think too much of ourselves, like the one at the end of the Unetaneh Tokef that reminds us that our origins are dust and our end is dust.
Now, if you’re thinking what I’m thinking, that’s not a very uplifting or cheery idea to ponder. Do any of us really want to spend these days being told that we are nothing, that we should walk around with our heads bowed low, deferential to everyone we meet, reluctant to express ourselves, positioning ourselves as a doormat for others to walk across? Don’t we want to go home from these days of prayer and celebration feeling strong, proud and content?
The truth is that our tradition does not counsel us toward self-denigration. We are not asked to abuse or punish ourselves—that is not the essence of humility. Rather, in embracing the attribute of humility we are encouraged to diminish ourselves just a bit to make some room for others. The humble person does not castigate herself, but suppresses the inclination toward vanity and boastful pride in order to see the value and blessing in others. Instead of entertaining the metaphor of a doormat, we could consider the image of a threshold. In that spirit, the Talmudic sage Rava teaches us: “A low threshold across the house of your soul makes it possible for doors to close and open.” Humility isn’t about becoming a doormat. It’s about making a space for others to cross the low threshold of your being and enter your world. A humble person doesn’t take up lots of space. He makes space in his heart for others. A humble person does not have an outlook that is self-important, self-satisfied, pompous or arrogant. A humble person has room in her mind and soul for other people’s ideas and concerns. The great sage Rashi tells us that there was a good reason that God gave the Torah to the People of Israel in the Sinai desert, a place where a person feels humbled by the elements. Only by humbling ourselves, by subduing the notion we so often have that we know everything already, can we be open to the words and wisdom of the Torah.
Humility is also the reason offered in the Midrashic tradition that Joshua was chosen to succeed Moses. Despite the macho image assigned to Joshua in movies, he is depicted in the Midrash as a very humble, even timid person who listened attentively and refrained from making bold, brash statements. It could be debated whether those qualities are ideal for a leader, but God clearly preferred him to someone else who might have made big decisions without considering the opinions of those around him.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the attribute of humility in recent weeks as we have all witnessed the terrible hurricanes and the flooding and destruction they caused in Houston and Southern Florida. Scores of people tragically lost their lives to the ferocity of nature, and the lives of thousands more have been upended. At virtually the same time, we barely noticed that the largest wildfire in California history could not be contained as it destroyed thousands of acres of forest and dozens of homes. These catastrophic events certainly call us to offer empathy and support to those who are suffering. And perhaps they are also humbling reminders that despite our mastery of our world, the forces of nature can subdue and overwhelm us without mercy. They remind us that we don’t know as much as we think we do and that we could all use a dose of humility.
There’s a term for the cluster of attitudes that we ought to embrace, both individually and collectively, that spur us to recognize and accept our own fallibility and own our limitations and biases. Michael Lynch, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, calls it “Intellectual Humility.” And we sorely need it to creep into our national dialogue. It’s not unreasonable for people to disagree with one another on important matters. But people seem to disagree on so much that there are no facts any longer. People hold onto their understanding of truth so fiercely that they lose all objectivity. They lose the capacity to talk and listen to others, and to learn from others. Intellectual Humility compels us to see our views as capable of improvement because of what others contribute to our understanding of the world.
An example comes to mind from the holy city of Jerusalem, home to what is the holiest site in all of Judaism—the Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi, or Western Wall of the ancient Temple Mount. Soon after the Old City of Jerusalem was recaptured by the Israelis in the Six Day War and the city was reunited, the Israelis renovated the Kotel Plaza so that Jews could pray there in dignity. It wasn’t long before the site was declared to be an official synagogue under the control of the Chief Rabbinate. Now, if you follow Israeli politics then you know that the Chief Rabbinate doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. In fact, they consider Conservative and Reform Jews to be clowns who are engaged in nothing less than the destruction of the Jewish way of life. And because they control the Kotel Plaza, they refuse to allow any form of worship to take place there other than their own. Even after world Jewish leaders spent months negotiating a compromise with the government that would have enabled all three major denominations of Judaism to claim a place near the Wall, the ultra-Orthodox, who control a political party key to the governing coalition, demanded that the agreement be abandoned. What is disheartening about this episode is not primarily that non-Orthodox Jews may not gather to pray at the Wall in a manner in keeping with our customs and traditions. It is that some Jews are so entrenched in their own views and are so convinced that they, and they alone, possess truth and an understanding of the will of God, that they can make no room for the views and ideas of others. It’s ironic and sad that those who claim to be fiercely loyal to Jewish law and tradition have overlooked one of our foundational teachings, namely that a person should humbly make room for the ideas and views of others rather than brashly and rudely claiming to have a monopoly on the truth. I should add that while the example I’ve cited is from the right of the Jewish religious and political spectrum, the problem of arrogance and intolerance of the views of others is not restricted to the right. There are many on the left, in the world of religion and politics, who are arrogant and intolerant to the point that they cannot listen to anyone but themselves.
Living with a sense of humility does not mean that we must abandon any claim to knowledge. There is a point at which we must recognize that there is evidence to support certain facts. There is a point that we must live with conviction. As Prof. Lynch puts it, “Conviction allows you to know when to stop inquiring, when to realize that you know enough—that the earth really is round, that the climate is warming, that the Holocaust happened.” To paraphrase the professor, conviction allows us to say, indeed demands that we say unhesitatingly, that racism is evil and that there were not decent people on both sides of the horrifying conflict that took place in Charlottesville last month. Yes, we must live with an attitude of humility. But we must balance humility with conviction. There is a time to be humble and there is a time to stand up for the values that we know to be true. Sometimes we must trust that we know the difference.
Among the ideas I learned and shared with the congregation on a Shabbat in the past year was this teaching brought by Rabbi Shai Held. The Talmudic sages were fascinated by the idea that God is everywhere. That’s what’s meant by the phrase in the Torah and Siddur, Kevodo Malei Olam…God’s presence fills the universe. But at the same time, they wondered how, if God fills all space, there could be room for anything else to exist. They reply to their own question by saying that God performs an act called Tzimtzum…contraction. God withdraws the Divine presence to make room for other beings to inhabit the universe. That is how God’s presence, otherwise filling all of space, could be contained within the Mishkan, the first Temple built by our ancestors who wandered in the desert.
So it is with us. We, too, most often need to perform an act of tzimtzum, to contract ourselves, to reign in our instinct to fill the void with our views and ideas of what is right and true. We, most often, ought to make room to listen to others, for in so doing we will learn and we will grow.