The Power of Humility
MyLife Essay Contest 2016
Last week, my teacher opened up a discussion about a school issue with our class. And we all got involved discussing it. When class was over, the teacher called to me. He told me he saw a lack of humility in my manner. He gave examples, what I had said, how I had said it, and advised me, kindly, to work on humility.
But, honestly, I can’t decide how ready I am to become more humble. Looking at the successful people I know, I see that the more they believe in themselves, the further they get in life.
If anything, I’d prefer to work on self-confidence! Or, work-ethic, knowledge. If necessary, I’d work on respect and kindness. But why humility? Imagine, if I see myself as small, how small I will be in the eyes of others? I do not see the value of humility. Please share your thoughts on this topic, Yosef. Thank-you!
Hi, Ben. Nice to hear from you!
Here’s a tip: sometimes speaking in a gentle, respectful way can be more effective than speaking with overflowing confidence, which may be interpreted as arrogance. That’s to address whatever actually happened during the classroom discussion.
Regarding humility itself, I’m thinking, if your teacher knows you well, he may be advising you about humility for an important reason (or reasons) that you don’t know. Humility doesn’t sound very exciting, but humility is beautiful; it can be a path to greatness!
Read this essay, and let me know what you think.
Humility is a noble character trait, but for many people it’s not one they dream to acquire. First of all, it seems illogical to say that humility is a prerequisite for life success. Humility itself seems incapable of putting bread on the table, whereas qualities like ambition and effort do seem able to. Humility seems to play a tiny role, if any role, in getting ahead in life, in practical terms. For getting a salary boost or a job promotion, for influencing people, creating a novel invention, or promoting one’s cause or one’s business, the character traits presumably needed are self-confidence, vision, organization and a lot of hard work. It seems hard to pinpoint at what stage humility becomes crucial in practical living.
And secondly, in the case of a person deciding that humility would actually benefit them, it still seems hard to decipher if humility itself is crucial, or if it just humble speech and humble behavior that must be projected. A person wanting to become a more respectful friend, spouse, parent or student, may want to learn the skills of what to say and what to do, to show humility to the other, but may be tempted to ignore the actual attribute of humility, the mindset of humility. In a well-known letter penned by Nahmanides to his son, he underscores the central and foundational role humility plays in Divine Service, with a quote from King Solomon: ‘Fear of Heaven is a product of (follows) humility’1. Ethics of Our Fathers contains a variety of instructions to be humble, including the statement ‘Have a very, very low spirit’2.
So, is humility simply ‘a modest or low view of one’s own importance’, as google defines, or is there more to it? How is humility essential? Does humility have its own power?
In Chassidic thought, the concept of ‘Bittul’, meaning ‘cancellation’, refers to the removal of ego. In Basi Legani 5710, and 5716, Chassidic Rebbes explain Bittul in terms of the Sfirah of Malchus, the spiritual attribute of ‘Sovereignty’.3 Perhaps exploring ‘Bittul’ can help us define – and desire – humility.
Our world is created with cycles of ten spiritual attributes. G-dly Vitality flows into and around the world through these vessels, in a specific order. These attributes have Kabalistic names, which might be loosely translated as Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Kindness, Restraint, Harmony, Eternity, Splendor, Foundation and Sovereignty4. The G-dly Light passing through these vessels is affected by the vessels, and emerges with differences, sometimes bearing little correlation to its original qualities. The longer the chain of vessels, the less obvious the True Source of the light. At the very bottom of these chains, we have our physical world, where G-d’s light and energy have been so severely processed (of course by His Will) that it is all perceived as physical creations, outwardly void of a trace of G-dliness.
In each cycle of ten attributes, the Sefirah of Malchus (the attribute of Sovereignty) is positioned at the bottom. It has an important role, but a humble role – a role that will teach us about humility.
Malchus is described as having nothing of its own, in comparison to the other vessels.5 Malchus adds nothing to the light, yet serves as the vessel where the light changes, and exits significantly changed. It is the last station for the light before a new entity becomes apparent. In our world, Malchus ‘dispatches’ creations6.
This phenomenon should be pondered deeply. The amazing transformation that takes effect, as G-dly light passes through Malchus, is attributed directly to the Bittul of Malchus, to the fact that it flattens out and simply receives. The light from the other stations blend together at
Malchus. Malchus facilitates a cosmic ‘chemical reaction’.
The other nine attributes also act as humble rivers flowing with G-dly light, but their Bittul is not as intense as the Bittul of Malchus. Notice, the light they emit is similar to the light they receive. Whereas, the light that Malchus emits is radically different to the light it receives: Malchus produces creations! Against all odds, it is Malchus that fosters a quantum leap, and not its preceding spheres. This is so because of Bittul.
Taking a closer look, this leap shows that there’s a special link between the Creator, and Malchus, the transmitter of the creations. Without this line, Malchus would not be able to create. Such an absorbent vessel is Malchus, that it absorbs light from the Source Itself. The flatter Malchus becomes, the taller.
By being nothing, Malchus gets everything.
The previous Rebbe and the present Rebbe support this concept with a more tangible example: absorbing knowledge from a teacher. In this example, the knowledge of the teacher and his intellectual greatness are in a realm that is beyond that of the student. Not simply smarter than the student, the teacher is above and beyond him in every way. And, somehow, we have a scenario where the teacher will ‘teach’ and the student will ‘learn’.
In order for the student to grasp the wisdom of his teacher in this scenario, he has to be on blank-mode. He cannot be conscious of himself. He should not be aware of preconceived notions – old concepts may bear no relevance at all in the new reality he is trying to grasp, and worse, they may appear contradictory to the new material, which will confuse him and disrupt the learning. He should not feel his own ideas and feelings – not even to feel pleasure in learning. Any recognition he may give to his own identity and interests can interrupt the flow of the knowledge. He must listen and absorb, and do nothing else, and he will emerge tremendously enlightened.
This state of blankness is temporary. Of course, before and after the learning, the student has his own feelings, responsibilities and talents. Before the learning, he wants to learn, and after the learning, he digests the learning. But at the time of teaching and learning, nothing of his own identity matters.
Before we address the transformational outcome of this Bittul, let’s understand it in practical terms.
Think Receptivity and Objectivity.
The Bittul of Malchus, and of the learning student, is captured in the fact that they do not feel themselves; they don’t allow any aspect of their own needs or interests to interrupt the flow of the amazing changes that are happening to them and through them. Their attention is on the Creator, or the teacher, and not on themselves. They’re looking at the bigger picture.
Objectivity – shifting your gaze away from yourself. According to Chassidus, holiness is about Bittul.7 Get out of yourself, and from that humbled, yet elevated spot, beyond your own interests and desires, serve G-d and service others. Getting out of and over yourself – that’s Bittul.
Moshe Rabainu is described as the most humble man that ever was.8 If humility was about being small is his perception, Moshe’s humility would surely have disabled him from leading. Not only was Moshe a leader, he was somewhat feisty in his role. He spoke to Paroh, he argued with G-d, he loved his nation, he taught them, he rebuked them, he made decisions, and so on – not your typical meek man. So what was Moshe’s humility?
Chassidus explains: Moshe’s humility was not about not seeing his worth. Moshe knew who he was, and was not blind to his abilities. But he knew: G-d gave them to him. Moshe’s humility was about not seeing his achievements as his own credits.9 In other words, he believed that anybody else, given his qualities, would do what he did, if not more, if not better. His role did not feed his ego.
Every time we achieve something, we flourish, we excel, our initial wish is to fixate our attention on ourselves, and revel in the glow of our own amazingness. However, employing the Objectivity of Bittul, our attitude is adjusted: these talents and accomplishments are not who we are, rather, they are gifts, they are tools, that have been given to us. Objectivity says: Use the tools to serve Hashem and to benefit others. Objectivity takes the focus off of the self. It puts the focus on what’s important. Objectivity can be a refreshing understanding of Humility.
In the earliest interaction between Moshe and Hashem, Moshe rejects his obligations.10 He shows no interest in speaking to Paroh, and (lehavdil) to the Jews. Understanding Humility as Objectivity, we can say: Moshe’s acceptance of his position, and his wholehearted embracing it, was humility, not ego, because, he did not want to lead, but Objectivity showed that he was needed, so he lead. He focused on the mission, and not on himself.
Internalizing this idea, let us emphasize that Objectivity and Humility are intrinsically similar. Before Objectivity, we all have an arrow pointing to ourselves and to our egos. Bittul, as Objectivity, adjusts the arrow. No longer are we fussing over our wants and needs. We are aware of them, but not obsessed with them. Bittul points the arrow to Hashem, and to the Torah, to our leaders and teachers, and to our fellow Jews. Bittul shifts our gaze from our egos to our missions. And with that, Objectivity is Humility.
Depending on life circumstances, some of us lean towards self-doubt and some towards arrogance. Using the Objectivity mindset, we de-personalize the pain of our failures and the glory of our successes, and we focus on the bigger picture. Circumstances seem to belittle us, or to aggrandize us, but we don’t notice. We forge on, neither dejected, nor conceited.
To tie it all together, we remind ourselves that transparent Malchus and empty Student do not remain transparent and empty! They both become leaders above their ‘offspring’; Malchus produces creations, and Student might now teach. Being ‘nothing’, they have ‘everything’.
In other words, there is exciting news about Bittul: Bittul is followed by greatness! Becoming a humble listener and learner is the beginning of real growth. That’s the punchline of Bittul. More specifically to Torah, though, greatness is achieved specifically by embodying G-d’s expectations, for He is the Creator, He knows – and it is only through transcending our limited perceptions that we will tap into an awareness of G-d’s reality. In that way, greatness is impossible without Bittul.
G-dly ‘light’ is being directed to me, and through me, all the time, in the form of vitality, responsibility and opportunity. Will I be Malchus, and internalize it? Without Bittul, I risk ignoring or rejecting this light. ‘What Mitzva can I do now? What is the truth about my current state? What does my family need from me, today? What does my mentor advise me to do? What is my role?’ That’s Bittul asking for truth. And those are questions that lead to a greatness born from humility.
Let’s push our egos to the side. Open our minds. Hear truth. Tackle the challenges and grow. Let’s be the people G-d wants us to be! That’s truth. That’s greatness. And then, as we soar to levels of self-development that we didn’t know were attainable, we say: Yes, we are important, influential and accomplished, but only because we’ve been receptive, objective and absorbent. This is the beauty and power of humility.
1. ‘Fear of Heaven follows humility’.
(קב ענוה יראת ה עשר וכבוד וחיים (משלי כב-ד
2. ‘Be exceedingly humble’
3. מאד מאד הוה שפל רוח (פרקי אבות ד) מאמרי באתי לגני תש”י (אות ו) ותשט”ז .
4. Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Kindness, Restraint, Harmony, Eternity, Splendor, Foundation and Sovereignty.
5. Malchus is described as having nothing of its own, in comparison to the other vessels.
שענין הדלות בקדושה הוא ענין ספירת המלכות דלית לה מגרמה כלום לפי שהיא בתכלית הביטול והשפלות) באתי לגני)
6. According to Chassidus, holiness is about Bittul. (כל ענין הקדושה להיות בבחינת ביטול בתכלית (באתי לגני
7. In our world, Malchus ‘dispatches’ creations.
וממנה נתהווה כל סדר ההשתלשלות
8. Moshe Rabainu is known as the most humble man that ever was.
והאיש משה עניו מאד מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה )במדבר יב-ג)
9. Moshe’s humility was about not seeing his achievements as his own
שידע אשר כל עניני מעלותיו הוא מה שניתן לו מלמעלה
(ספר המאמרים וירא העם תש”י ,לקוטי שיחות יג בהעלותך)
10. In the earliest interaction between Moshe and Hashem, Moshe rejects his obligations.ויאמר משה מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה וכי אוציא את בני ישראל ממצרים) שמות ג-יא)