What is Humility?

What is Humility? February 14, 2012

Here’s a fresh take on the concept of humility I came across recently:

What exactly is humility? Does it mean speaking of ourselves as unaccomplished, even when this is not the case?  In truth, humility is not difficult to define (though it is hard to embody). It means not regarding ourselves as more important than other people, including those who have achieved less than we have. And it implies judging ourselves not in comparison with others, but in light of our capabilities, and the tasks we believe God has set for us on earth. This idea is conveyed in a seemingly immodest teaching of Rabbi Israel Salanter: “I know that I have the mental capacity of a thousand men, but because of that, my obligation is also that of a thousand men”. As Rabbi Salanter’s statement emphasizes, the very capabilities that can make a person most proud (“I know I have the mental capacity of a thousand men”) are also those that should be most humbling. If we have greater wisdom, then we also have a greater responsibility to bring people to understanding and wisdom. If we have wealth, then we have a greater responsibility to help those in need. If we occupy a position of power, we have greater obligation to help the oppressed. In short, the fact that we have greater abilities than another does not mean that we are greater in God’s eyes – another person, for example, might be more accomplished than we are in fulfilling the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself” – but only that we have greater responsibilities. Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done also serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance.

(A Code of Jewish Ethics, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin)

 

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