By Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow
A tale is told about a visitor to a yeshiva. Upon entering the study hall, he noticed that the students were engaging in self-improvement techniques to acquire the trait of humility. The visitor sat down next to one of the students, who was repeating to himself, “I’m nothing, I’m nothing, I’m nothing.” The visitor also began chanting the same mantra, “I’m nothing, I’m nothing, I’m nothing.” Whereupon one student turned to another and said, “Who does this guy think he is? He thinks he can just waltz in and be a nothing?!”
The Gemara says in Sukkah (20a) that Hillel restored the knowledge of Torah that was forgotten in his days. This seems to contradict the promise made to Klal Yisrael that the words of Torah would never be forgotten. The Aruch L’ner explains that over time many arguments arose between Talmudic students regarding the correct halachah in specific instances. It was just these finer points of halachah that were forgotten. Hillel taught the correct halachos as he received them from his rebbeim, thereby solving the disputes. Why was Hillel the individual to merit this distinction? The Imrei Pinchas says it was because of Hillel’s extreme humility. Moshe Rabbeinu, whom the Torah describes as “more humble than any man,” excelled at humility and was therefore chosen to teach Torah to Klal Yisrael. So, too, Hillel was chosen by Hashem to be a major link in the transmission of the Torah because of his humility.
It is hard to fathom how Moshe Rabbeinu remained humble, as great as he was. Did Moshe Rabbeinu think he was a nothing? Did Hillel think he was a nothing? Individuals who knew Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, describe him as humble. Yet in one of his teshuvos, he writes regarding a particularly serious question, that it can only be addressed by a select group of qualified rabbis, himself included. That hardly seems to be the words uttered by a humble person.
There is an anecdote told about an individual who strived to improve his character traits. However, whenever he excelled at the trait of humility he became proud of it and thereby failed. Some assume that it is impossible for a humble individual to be cognizant of his humility and still retain his modesty. By definition, humility is not valuing oneself at all. Therefore, a truly humble individual can’t know that he is humble.
Our Talmud teaches us otherwise. The last Mishnah in Sotah states that when Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi passed away, the trait of true humility was no longer extant. The Gemara subsequently quotes Rav Yosi, who states that this text of the Mishnah must be erroneous because “I have true humility and I am living after the passing of Rebbe!” How can Rav Yosi say this self-aggrandizing statement? If he is proclaiming himself to be humble, he obviously isn’t!
A similar question can be raised on the commentary of the Rosh on the first pasuk in Vayikra. The first pasuk starts out with “Vayikra el Moshe—And Hashem called to Moshe.” The Rosh asks, Why is the letter aleph at the end of the word Vayikra written small? He answers that it is due to Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility. He explains with the following midrash:
Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem, “Why did you start a sefer Chumash with a pasuk that demonstrates my greatness by stating that You directly called to me?” Hashem responded, “I couldn’t start the verse with the word vayikar, because that implies that I just happened to talk to you.” That is the word in the Torah used in reference to Hashem talking to Bila’am. Whereupon Moshe pleaded with Hashem, “Please at least make it known to the future generations that it was difficult to me the way the Torah started Vayikra.” Hashem acquiesced and commanded that vayikra be written with a small aleph to make known that Moshe Rabbeinu would have preferred that the term vayikar be used in reference to him when starting sefer Vayikra.
Moshe Rabbeinu wanted to teach Klal Yisrael a lesson in humility so he pleaded with Hashem to let everyone know that he was humble and preferred the term vayikar. Isn’t this the antithesis of humility? Is it possible that Moshe Rabbeinu, about whom it is written that he was “more humble than any man,” should want to broadcast the fact that he was humble? Doesn’t that by definition make him not humble?
To understand this properly, we must revisit the definition of haughtiness and humility. Humility is not an exercise in self-deception, denying one’s G‑d-given abilities. A person with positive traits declaring he is worthless is engaged in falsehood. Actual humility stems from truth.
The Mesilas Yesharim (ch. 11) writes that arrogance is a form of falsehood. Every person has strengths and weaknesses. Haughtiness occurs when one focuses exclusively on his strengths and denies his weaknesses. He achieves his perception of greatness by using falsehood to eliminate his faults. R’ Yisrael Salanter clarifies further. One may even admit that he has weaknesses, but he deems them insignificant. His friend’s faults, on the other hand, are paramount. The upshot of his mental calculations is that by right of his personal strengths he feels he deserves honor and tribute from other individuals. Those individuals are greatly inferior because he magnifies their faults. These feelings generally lead a person to act in a way that we would deem arrogant, such as proclaiming to the world that he is superior.
However, a truly intellectually honest person will not view himself as a person who deserves praise and accolades because he realizes his own weaknesses. Further, he realizes the truth that his abilities were gifts from G‑d to use in His service. A chauffeur isn’t arrogant that he drives a stretch limousine, because the car is simply a tool of his job. So too, the anav realizes that he has G‑d-given gifts to use to fulfill his life mission. He realizes that if those gifts had been given to another individual, the other individual might have excelled as well.
Rav Yosi, who declared, “I have true humility,” was cognizant of his weaknesses, thereby making him a humble person. Further, he realized that whatever he achieved in life was with the help of Hashem. He didn’t magnify the faults of others and minimize his own faults. He had a brutally honest perspective of himself and others. The fact that he realized that he had this perspective and was thereby humble does not negate his humility in any way. The opposite is true. The more truthful a person is with himself, the more humble he becomes. True, publicizing one’s humility is behavior typically associated with an arrogant person. However, as we see from Rav Yosi, it is not axiomatic. Rav Yosi had a reason to declare his humility. He was trying to uncover the true text of the Mishnah.
Rav Meir Chodosh, zt’l, goes one step further. He says that Rav Yosi was defending the honor of Rebbe. The Mishnah taught that the trait of humility died with Rebbe. That is tantamount to an affront to Rebbe. Rebbe’s humility must have been slightly imperfect if he couldn’t train any of his students to develop the trait of humility. Rav Yossi declared, “No! Rebbe did teach the subsequent generations to be humble. I’ll prove it! Look! I am humble! Rebbe’s humility was perfect.” He was declaring that he achieved the trait of seeing a true perspective of himself only in order to defend the honor of Rebbe.
The same answer applies to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe Rabbeinu was the humblest man alive because he achieved the truest self-perspective that man could achieve. The fact that he wanted future generations to learn a lesson from his humility does not make him not humble.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, realized that he was one of the greatest poskim in our generation. However, he did not feel he was deserving of personal tribute for it. Consequently, his humble demeanor reflected that.
In summation, humility is a state of true self-awareness. Arrogance is a state of self-deception. v
Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead and is a rebbi at Mesivta Kesser Yisroel of Willowbrook. He can be contacted at ASebrow@gmail.com.