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Bamidbar(Numbers 1:1-4:20)

Humility and Mount Sinai

The story is told of the great 19th century yeshiva in Europe called Novardok, where the students were known for their great humility. To reach such levels, they would sit for 30 minutes each morning in the study hall, rocking back and forth, chanting the mantra, "I am nothing, I am nothing."

One morning, a new student arrives at the yeshiva, and upon entering the study hall, is surprised to find hundreds of students muttering, "I am nothing." He checks the sign outside the door to make sure he has the right place, and then figures he might as well go in and join them. He finds an empty seat, sits down, and begins rocking back and forth, chanting, "I am nothing, I am nothing." Suddenly the student seated next to him turns and says: "The nerve of you! I was here an entire year before I was nothing!"

The Humble Hill

The Midrash says that when God was preparing to give the Torah, all the mountains stepped forward and declared why they thought the Torah should be given on them. "I am the highest mountain," said one. "No," said another, "I am the steepest mountain and therefore the Torah should be given on me."

One by one, they all stated their claims. But in the end, God chose Mount Sinai - not because it was the tallest or the grandest (because it's not, as anyone who's toured the Sinai Desert will attest), but because, says the Midrash, it was the most humble.

What is this notion of "humility" and what does it have to do with Torah?

First, let's clarify what humility is NOT. Humility does not mean a meek reluctance to speak up or be assertive. Humility is not slouching your shoulders and having low self-esteem. The Torah (Numbers 12:3) refers to Moses as "the most humble person who ever lived" – and yet he aggressively confronts Pharaoh, fights a war against Amalek, and stands up to castigate the Jewish people.

Humility Defined

Humility is to know one's place. In this week's Parsha, the Torah describes the arrangement of the 12 Tribes in the Israelite camp. After a long description of who will travel first, and who will travel last, the Torah says: "And the Jewish people did exactly as they were instructed" (Numbers 1:54).

What's the big deal that everyone camped where they were supposed to? The Midrash explains that when God suggested the arrangement, Moses began to complain, saying, "Now there will be disputes between the tribes." Moses reasoned that once he starts specifying who travels in the East and who travels in the West, who is in front and who is in back, people will start arguing. If the tribe of Yehudah is told to travel in the East, they will say they want to travel in the South, and so forth with each of the tribes.

God tells Moses: Years earlier, at Jacob's funeral, his 12 sons carried the coffin. The way the sons were arranged around the coffin is the same way the tribes will be arranged in the camp today. In this way, everyone is already clear as to his proper place. So don't worry, God tells Moses, because when someone knows their place, there is inevitably peace and calm.

This applies to our relationship with God as well. The higher a person becomes spiritually, the more humble he becomes. As we get closer to God, we become more realistic about our own limitations, vulnerability and mortality. We internalize the reality that every human's position is tenable and only God is eternal.

Moses was called "the most humble" because when he stood before God he knew his place. Anything else precludes room for God to fit in. That's why the Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship; both push away the presence of God.

Nose in the Air

In the secular world, the biggest personalities are usually the most arrogant. Picture the scene: A movie star walks into a party – strutting, cocky, head raised. His mannerisms shout: "I am great and I don't need you or anybody else." The room is silent with awe. Charisma!

Judaism says this is counterfeit charisma.

True humility means living with the reality that nothing matters except doing the right thing. The humble person is not dependent on the opinion of others. Because sometimes doing the right thing is popular (and consistent with one's ego needs), and sometimes it's not. But the humble person can set his ego aside, if need be, in order to consistently do the right thing.

An arrogant person, on the other hand, is not con-cerned about right and wrong – only about himself and how well things will turn out for him. He can appear to be smooth on the surface, but he's really just manipulating everything around him to suit his self-centered needs.

  • "Arrogance" = I'm all that counts.
  • "Humility" = What's greater than me is what counts.

In actuality, it is humility which guarantees charisma! The humble person has the ability to rise above his self-contained narcissistic envelope and embrace those around him. Since he confidently knows his place, he can leave space for others without having an ego crisis. He honors others and helps them find their place, too.

Isn't that true charisma?!


Humility is the ability to be objective about one's own position vis-a-vis everyone else. If I am in the position to lead, then I should lead. And if not, I should defer. I must know where I stand, and not take undo liberties. If I am in the presence of someone more knowledgeable, I should think twice before speaking. There is nothing more annoying than an accountant standing in a roomful of doctors and pontificating on medical science.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa (19th century Europe) always carried two slips of paper – one in the right pocket and one in the left. On one paper was written the Talmudic statement, "The entire world was created just for me" (Sanhedrin 38a). On the other paper was written the words of Abraham, "I am but dust and ashes" (Genesis 18:27). In this way, he was reminded that there are times to step forward, and times to step back.

Modern Model of Humility

Take for example Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l, the leader of American Jewry for much of the 20th century. In the introduction to Iggress Moshe, his monumental compendium of responsa, Rabbi Feinstein writes: "I would not have volunteered for the job of leading the Jewish people. But since this is the role that God has selected for me, I must accept it willingly."

One day in the study hall, a visitor picked up the pay phone, and the voice on the other end asked to speak with Moshe Feinstein. The visitor then walked into the study hall and began shouting: "Moishy! Phone call for Moishy!" Incredibly, he was using an informal nickname for the great sage! Rabbi Feinstein calmly raised his hand and graciously accepted the phone.

Rabbi Feinstein's sister was once asked, "What makes your brother so special?" She answered: "What makes my brother special is that he never looks at himself as being so special."

Practical Applications

So how do we achieve humility? The first thing a Jew does upon awakening in the morning is to say the Modeh Ani prayer: "I acknowledge you, God, for graciously returning my soul for yet another day. Thank you!"

Step One to humility is to put our relationship with God into perspective. We feel the "We," rather than the self-indulgent, negative energy. We emerge more relaxed, calm and flexible. And this in turn trickles down to all our interpersonal relationships: business partnership, marriage, community and nation-building.

Step Two to humility is found in the opening verse of this week's parsha. "And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert" (Numbers 1:1). The Sages ask a fundamental question: Why was the Torah given in a desert? Because a desert is empty. What this means is that to acquire Torah – to receive God's wisdom – we must first be willing to open up space inside.

The Maharal (16th century Prague) explains that the only way to teach anything is to first get the student to ask a question. Because a question creates a lack and a need – a space that the answer can then come and fill. But without first a question, there is no room for the answer.

In this time of the Shavuot holiday and reliving the Sinai experience, the message for us is to know our place, make some space, and let the truth of God and His Torah enter deep inside.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

Published: January 12, 2000

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Visitor Comments: 12

(10) Anonymous, May 27, 2012 3:10 PM

"What humility is not"

Great article. Thanks for describing the misconception that exists about humiliy, by detailing in a very simple form "what humility is not". I personally think this article should be displayed at least once every year on this site, to remind us that in getting a close relationship with Hashem, we should choose and maintain humility over egocenticism at all time, and know how and when to stand our ground to defend what we consider to be right under the Torah law. Thank you very much rabbi Shraga for such an important article.

(9) Catherine, May 26, 2008 10:48 AM

good article!

Thank you for the article

(8) Margarita, May 26, 2006 12:00 AM

Very clear article

very clear article and I am very greatful to you for it. I am reading it couple of years in the row now and still was happy to refresh it in my memory. Please, do send us more new articles like this one.

(7) Mic hal, May 23, 2006 12:00 AM

First the question? With God too?

It makes sense, what the Maharal of Prag says. The one who is learning, should first ask a question. I think, that applies to God too. We have questions - we cannot answer them ourselves. We look for God for an answer. Only he is able to tell us what we do not know. That is a part of humility too. And as time goes by, we realize that there are so many questions we ourselves cannot answer, only HE can. Unfortunately I do not have the feeling I reached humility. Maybe I get it at the end of my life as a "present". In the meanwhile God just takes me as I am.

(6) Samantha, May 21, 2006 12:00 AM

Cultural masculinity blocks humility, and therefore spirituality.

While this is a lovely lesson and outlines humility clearly, it does NOT address the hideous traits of masculinity which are not compatible with a humble spirituality. Men are raised to compete, 'best' others, and to project spurious personal competence
and sadly, this keeps them distant from God and more invested in their own self promotion. God Himself cannot prevail where humility takes second place to an aggrandised self.

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