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The Keys to Life

The Humble Man Merits Greatness

What are the advantages of acquiring the attribute of humility? A humble person will quickly develop positive traits such as sensitivity and love for his fellow man, and will find it easier to overcome negative tendencies

The Humble Man Merits Greatness

The attribute of humility resembles a tree trunk from which all good traits sprout. A humble person will quickly and easily develop positive traits such as good-heartedness, amiability, sensitivity and love for his fellow man, and will find it easier to overcome negative tendencies like anger, jealousy, resentment, the pursuit of honor and so on.

Contrary to him, a person who is arrogant and pretentious, who feels like he is superior to everyone else, will unwittingly fall into a trap of negative pride as it says:[1]  “Every haughty heart is the abomination of Hashem.” This kind of person does not live a proper life. He is easily angered and offended, he chases honor, and usually tries to obtain as many earthly pleasures as he can for himself – even if it means that he has to step on others in order to attain them. After all, he believes that he is above everyone else and lives with a sense of entitlement. He thinks to himself, ‘how could so and so have the audacity to speak to me in such a way???’

Such a person is neither welcome nor accepted by those around him, his acquaintances or even members of his household – as the sages state in the Talmud:[2] “One who is proud is not acceptable even to his own household.” While the humble man on the other hand, is desirable to all his friends. He is seen in a positive light by everyone and is admired by his family, as humility radiates a certain willingness and openness to accept arguments without feeling the need to become defensive. In addition, a special Divine grace is given to the humble person, as it says:[3] “To the humble, he will find favor.”

A person who wishes to acquire the attribute of humility must operate on two tracks: One is the mental track – which is where the main aspect of humility is positioned. This track consists of the thoughts that influence the feelings of the heart. And the practical track which involves the actions that will help him achieve the correct inner feeling.

Firstly, he must strive to be honest with himself, as humility is based on truth while arrogance is based on falsehood. This is why humility is a virtue, and arrogance, a deficiency. The deception that arrogance stems from is the false, split sense of self. He believes both that he is a perfect being without any deficiencies, and that the virtues that he possesses are his own, and not received from the Creator.

Therefore, when a person begins to work on his humility, he feels an innate desire to adhere to the truth. He then reflects upon the fact that he is not perfect. And if he has an advantage over others, such as wealth, then he must realize that he is deficient in a different area. And thus, he must internalize the idea that arrogance and pretentiousness belongs only to those who are perfect, and since nobody is perfect except for G-d, no one has the right to be arrogant or feel superior to others.

He must also consider the fact that even the virtues that he does posses are not his own, as he himself along with all his virtues, were created by G-d. Therefore, every positive quality or trait that he possesses, such as his health, wealth or skill, is nothing but a gift from above. And if that’s the case, then what is he so proud of? None of these things were given to him based on his own merit. Especially when he is not even perfect with regard to the positive traits that he possesses.

In the book Path of the Just, the Ramchal compares this to a bird that can spread its wings and reach the top of a tree at a remarkable speed, and a strong bull that can pull a loaded cart or a heavy plow. Would it make sense for one of them to be haughtier than the other? One has the ability to fly and the other has great strength. But a sound minded person, even if he was granted great intelligence and is likely to become proud of his wisdom, will see upon reflection and introspection that there really is no room for arrogance, because he is doing nothing greater than what his natural inclination is driving him to do. Meaning, when he understands that all his virtues are a gift from heaven, then as soon as he senses a bit of pride in his heart regarding his virtues, he should immediately direct these emotions towards G-d and express his gratitude for the wonderful gifts that he received. In this way, he will easily be able to attain the proper measure of humility, which combines the happiness he feels about the good that he has, along with his detachment from all feelings of superiority towards others.

The word Gaava (arrogance) relates to the phrase Geut HaMayim – defined as a tidal wave – like a deluge of pride flowing from one’s heart, whereas, humility in its essence is a quieting of the spirit. This creates an inner calmness, which stems from regarding every individual as equally esteemed in value without taking away from the proper measure of self-worth attributed to those who recognize the greatness of man.

And when he starts to feel like the arrogance is beginning to take over and his heart begins to swell with pride, he must repeat to himself and internalize the words of the Tanna, Akavya ben Mehalalel:[7]

Reflect upon three things and you will not come to sin. Know from where you came and where you are going and before whom you are destined to give account and reckoning. From where have you come? From a putrid drop. Where are you going? To a place of dust, worms and maggots. Before who are you destined to give account and reckoning? Before the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.

And we know that when the sages used to receive great honor, they would mutter verses associated with human lowliness and reflect upon them profoundly so that they don’t mistakenly become too proud, G-d forbid.

The second route upon which a person must operate in order to acquire the attribute of humility is the practical track - meaning, to utilize practical ways that can help him reach the proper inner feeling. Here’s an outline of the Ramchal’s instructions from his book, Path of the Just:[8]

We shall now speak of humility of deed. This area is divided into four parts: conducting oneself with lowliness, bearing insults, hating authority and fleeing honor, and giving honor to all men.

Conducting oneself with lowliness: This applies to one's manner of speaking, walking and sitting, and to all of one's movements. In relation to one's speech our Sages of blessed memory have said:[9] ‘A man should always speak gently with his fellow men.’ And Scripture explicitly states:[10] ‘The words of the wise, spoken gently, are accepted.’ One's words must be words of honor and not words of shame, as it is said:[11] ‘One who shames his friend is lacking a heart,’ and:[12] ‘When the wicked man comes, there also comes shame.’

In relation to one's manner of walking our Sages of blessed memory said:[13]‘Who will inherit the World to Come? A humble man, whose knee is low, who is bent coming in and bent going out.’ One should not walk erect, nor in a formalized, mincing manner, but as one going about his tasks.

As far as one's manner of sitting is concerned, a person should see to it that his place is among the lowly and not among the high. In this, too, Scripture is explicit:[14] ‘Do not glorify yourself before a king and do not stand in the place of the great . . ’

Along the same lines, our Sages of blessed memory said in the Midrash:[15] ‘Withdraw two or three levels from your place so that they will say to you, ‘come up’, rather than, ‘go down’.

Bearing insults: Our Sages of blessed memory have explicitly stated:[16] ‘Whose sins does He forgive? The sins of those who overlook the wrong committed against them.’

And;[17] ’Concerning those who are insulted but do not insult in return, who are shamed, but do not shame in return, it is said:[18] ‘His lovers are like the emerging of the sun in its strength.’ Our Rabbis learned:[19] ‘One should always be humble in the manner of Hillel.’

Hating authority and fleeing honor: It says:If one pursues honor, honor flees from him.’ It also states:[20]‘Do not be quick to enter into controversy.’ ‘Do not pursue authority, for what will you do afterwards? The next day they will come and put questions to you. How will you answer them?’ The incident of the disciples of Rabbi Gamliel bears out this idea. Although they were sorely pressed by their poverty, they declined positions of authority. In the words of our Sages of blessed memory:[21] ‘Do you think I give you lordship? I give you servitude...’

In conclusion, we find that both habit and introspection bring a person to humility. The habit is that he must accustom himself, as explained above, to act with humility. Meaning, to dwell in the lowlier places, to walk at the end of the crowd, and to wear modest clothing – meaning, respectable but not too fancy.

For when he accustoms himself to this way, humility will enter inside him little by little, until it becomes a fixed part of him in the proper way.

Introspection is the act of reflecting upon his deficiencies and the lowliness of man as being nothing but flesh and blood that originates from a putrid drop and ultimately turns to dust.  He must also reflect upon the fact that the motive driving his haughtiness, such as his wealth, strength, or status will always remain uncertain.

And if he sees that it is difficult for him and he is constantly failing in his attempt to acquire the attribute of humility, he should not despair – as its says:[22] “For though the righteous one may fall seven times, he will arise.” And just as a child learns how to walk from all the times that he falls, so too, the righteous man is strengthened specifically by his initial failures. And so, the person must empower himself to continue to overcome this negative trait by reflecting upon the damage it can cause, until he realizes that every attempt at overcoming it is worth his while. As it says about those who are arrogant: “Every haughty heart is the abomination of G-d”, and who actually wants to be an abomination to G-d for even one moment? This is besides for the fact that arrogance creates a false sense of superiority, and causes the person to ultimately stumble. This is because when a person is arrogant his judgment becomes impaired and his mental faculties completely distorted, making him err in his conclusions, ultimately causing him to make bad decisions. Even the heavens wish to decrease his exaggerated self-opinion and inflated self through various ways. As it says:[23] “Pride precedes destruction and arrogance comes before failure” and:[24] “Prior to his destruction, a man’s heart grows haughty.”

However, the humble man merits greatness. This is alluded to on the crown of the three tags on top of the letter “Nun”. Any person who is humble in this world, G-d will reward him in the future as the simple “End-Nun” suggests – a good ending in the days of the Messiah. And while he is still here, in this lifetime, he will merit honor and greatness. As it says: [25] “Prior to honor there is humility.” This is because the humble person is admired and loved by people – he is also desirable and loved by the Creator. Even when harsh decrees are present in the world and being saved from them is difficult, the attribute of humility is one of the only virtues that can bring salvation; as it says:[26] “Seek righteousness, seek humility – perhaps you will be concealed on the day of Hashem’s anger” and;[27] “If one comes to cleanse himself, he is helped.”


Notes and Sources

[1] Mishlei 16:5

[2] Baba Batra 98a

[3] Mishlei 3:34

[4] Path of the Just - chapter 1

[5] Mishlei 16:5

[6] Divrey Hayamim 2

[7] Avot 3a

[8] Path of the Just – chapter 22

[9] Yoma 86a

[10] Kohelet 9:17

[11] Mishlei 11:12

[12] Mishlei 18:3

[13] Sanhedrin 88b

[14] Mishlei 25:6-7

[15] Vayikra Rabbah 1:5

[16] Rosh Hashana 17a

[17] Shabbat 87b

[18] Shoftim 5:31

[19] Shabbat 30b

[20] Mishlei 25:8

[21] Horayot 10a

[22] Mishlei 24:16

[23] Mishlei 17:18

[24] Mishlei 18:12

[25] Mishlei 18:12

[26] Tzefania 2:3

[27] Shabbat 104a

Adapted from "The Keys to Life" by Rabbi Zamir Cohen