We take for granted that humility is an admirable virtue, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what humility is, and also what it is not.

Humility is commonly understood to means a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”

But this doesn’t ring true with what Judaism teaches us about the value of humility.

The Midrash famously teaches that Mount Sinai was only a little mountain to show how instrumental humility is.

But if the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility, then you’d assume a valley would be a more appropriate geological feature to teach the lesson!

So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?

The Shem M’shmuel states that to accept the Torah and live its ideals, you need to be a mountain, not a valley; or as Avos puts it, if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I?

As important as the quality of humility is, people who accept the Torah upon themselves must consider themselves important and deserving of the Torah.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks teaches that humility is an appreciation of our talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the dedication of oneself to something higher.

Rabbi Shlomo Farhi notes that the Torah labels Moshe as the most humble of all men. If humility is simply a low view of oneself, then Moshe, the Lawgiver and single greatest authority on the Torah, would meekly cave to any challenge – which he obviously couldn’t and didn’t. But if humility is about being of service, then Moshe truly was the most humble of all men – his entire life was singularly dedicated to public service. His achievements were never about him or his status; they were all in furtherance of rescuing and building the Jewish people.

It was no lack of humility for Moshe to acknowledge his own authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, then ultimately the Torah itself will have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still an essential ingredient to living a good life.

So perhaps humility is not that you are nothing; it’s that you are intellectually honest with yourself. Pride is about competing – that you are “cleverer” or “richer”; humility is about serving. Humility isn’t the opposite of narcissism and hubris; it’s the lack of them. In the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition. In humility, you are no more and no less than other people. Humility is not about hiding away, becoming a wallflower or a doormat; it is about the realization that your abilities and actions are not better or less. They simply are.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.

Jews have a daily duty to recall the Exodus.

The theme of the Exodus is ever present in various daily prayers and blessings; it seems like everything we do is another זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. It is so pervasive to so many commands and rituals, to the extent that we could almost miss the point entirely.

It is important to understand first principles because they are the foundational concepts that pervade the systems built upon them. So what do we mean when we say that we remember that God took the Jews out of Egypt?

Simply put, it’s not the history of the that we have to recall; it’s that every single last one of us is worthy of God’s unconditional love.

If we unpack the story, the Jews in Egypt weren’t saved because they were so good or so special, but quite the opposite.

The Zohar imagines the angels arguing whether or not God should save the Jews, and the argument against intervention was that “these are idol-worshippers, and so are these!”

When Moshe told the Jews to set aside and take one sheep per family, the Midrash says that “set aside” meant setting aside their idols, before taking the sheep for the mitzvah.

When even Moshe, already well on his way to Jewish leadership, saw Yisro’s daughters getting bullied and got involved in the fracas to protect them, the onlookers mistook him for just another Egyptian!

Moreover, the generation that left Egypt and stood at Sinai fought Moshe the rest of their lives, begging to go back to Egypt, and was ultimately doomed to wander and die in the wilderness.

The Zohar goes so far as to say that the Jews were on the 49th level of spiritual malaise; just one notch off rock bottom, the point of no return. Rav Kook notes that this adds a certain dimension to the imagery of God’s outstretched arm – it was a forceful intervention, an emergency rescue of a nation that had stumbled and was about fall off a cliff – בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה.

That is to say that on a fundamental level, the Jews didn’t deserve to be rescued at all.

And yet crucially, as R’ Chaim Kanievsky notes, God responded to their cries all the same – וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה’ אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’ אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ.

The Divrei Chaim notes that the very first Commandment is no command at all; God “introduces” himself as the God who took us out of Egypt – אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים. We might not deserve redemption, yet God redeems us all the same. It’s not a command – it is something that simply just is, whoever and wherever we are.

R’ Tzadok haKohen writes that to remember Egypt is to remember God’s first declarative sentence; our God rescues people from Egypt, whoever they are.

The Ropshitzer quipped that תְּחִלָּה לְמִקְרָאֵי קדֶשׁ זֵכֶר לִיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם – the first step towards holiness is remembering that the same Exodus that rescued people from the abyss once before could be just a moment away.

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe put it, God’s redemption is not contingent on our worthiness.

That’s our daily duty. To remind yourself that the first principle of Judaism from which everything follows is that you are worthy.

We think of the Ten Commandments as a monumental national event. Yet the opening words, of the very first time Hashem spoke to humanity, were not addressed to a wider audience. The words used are deeply personal. אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ – not plural, everyone’s, but singular, yours. This is a very personal God, establishing intimate contact with individuals; not just to Judaism in general and greater humanity at large.

And yet through Chazal, this is understood slightly differently. Rashi understands that in this divine communication, Hashem spoke through Moshe, and in a sense, to Moshe exclusively. This personal communication was to and through Moshe, and relayed to everyone else. The Midrash understands that this was personal to Moshe to the extent that in the aftermath of the Golden Calf, he could avert catastrophe by saying that the Jews had not betrayed אָנֹכִי ה’ אֱלֹקֶיךָ, to the exclusion of idols, and that this was said to him alone. The personal God of Sinai was Moshe’s only!

So how are we supposed to understand the events at Sinai; can God be personal with humanity?

When Yisro is introduced to us, we learn how he heard what happened to Moshe and the people of Israel:

וַיִּשְׁמַע יִתְרוֹ כֹהֵן מִדְיָן חֹתֵן משֶׁה אֵת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֱלֹהִים לְמשֶׁה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל עַמּוֹ – Yisro heard what God had done for Moshe, and Israel, his people… (18:1)

That is, the Torah sets up Moshe not just as the leader of the nation of Israel, but as a separate category, on par with the rest of his entire people combined. The Maharal deduces that in doing so, the Torah recognises Moshe’s status and achievement as someone who had transcended everyone else and could not be grouped together with anyone. He was in a class of his own.

As someone who had transcended Israel, his soulmate came from beyond Israel too. His role was to shape and form a nation of poor, ignorant, downtrodden slaves into the image of the divine on this planet. It could not be done from within; it necessarily had to come from beyond; in the form of Tziporah. Together, they crafted Israel’s destiny.

But how does a human transcend? No man was like Moshe, but what happened to him that he could do it? How can a human survive forty days and nights without any basic necessities the human body requires?

The Maharal notes that forty days thematically indicates a new aspect of creation. It takes forty days for a foetus to take shape, and it took forty days for the era of the Flood to transition, and the new world to emerge. Forty days on Sinai is a cryptic allusion to a new aspect awakened in Moshe. He was no longer Moshe, a human. He had become Moshe, the prophet.

He had become the mouthpiece for God to reveal Himself to mankind.

But far more than a loudspeaker, he was the divine interface. He was the spring from which we could drink God’s word and be nourished and grow. The Torah was imbued with his energy, and through him we too could transcend. He was on the wavelength to absorb the Torah, and it was channeled to us.

This is the true meaning of Moshe’s riposte to Hashem after the Golden Calf, that Sinai was Moshe’s personal God, and the people did not deserve to be wiped out. They could not receive the full power or scope of God’s word; only Moshe could. This is the “out” that Sinai in the singular provides. Rav Tzadok teaches that the personal God of Sinai is always there for us to reach out to, to aspire to. Criticallly, it is not a standard against which the people who could not rise to the challenge were held. Moshe’s role was to help everyone get there. They weren’t yet, but that was ok. The personal God of Sinai is always there, waiting for us. And we learnt that from Moshe.

This is why he plays a central part in God’s revelation to mankind. He was instrumental. Moshe was truly Rabbeinu – our teacher. He taught us how to interface and connect to the Torah – it was not just a repetition of what he’d been told. It is a living, breathing thing, and it is Moshe’s life that it was imbued with. Through him, Judaism and mankind learned that God wants a personal connection to us, if only we reach out.

Midrashim are cryptic, and often misunderstood. They are metaphors, literary devices that encode how Chazal understood stories in the Torah.

There is a Midrash that teaches that before Creation, God went to all the nations that would one day be and offered them the Torah. Each time the offer was made, all the nations inquired what they would be bound to do. All the nations, except the Jews, who accepted without knowing what it entailed.

What is this Midrash about?

The Midrash does not say the Jews would not care what was in it. If they had been asked, perhaps the response would have been about gossip, and the Torah would be declined! The Midrash does not mean that the Jews do not care about the pitfalls. R’ Chaim Brown explains that the Midrash is about something else entirely – relationship. R’ Binyamin Finkel gives a simple analogy.

If a broker you do not know calls, and gives a half hour window to make a large investment that he assures you would give large returns, there would be a lot of questions to ask. It is perfectly reasonable to want to know what you’re getting yourself into – the Midrash is not speaking of a deficiency in the nations for their questions. The questions are fair. “What would this agreement require from me?”

Instead, consider that your parents, or in-laws, were the ones on the phone, offering a half hour window in which to join a venture of theirs. Undoubtedly there are risks, but with the love and trust of the relationship, there needn’t be any questions.

This is what the Midrash is about. Whatever duties the Torah requires are worth taking on, because it is our Father offering the package.

One of the mitzvos recited daily is the duty to love God:

וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ, וּבְכָל-מְאֹדֶךָ – Love Hashem your God, with all your heart, soul, and things… (6:5)

The question commonly asked is how exactly can emotion be commanded? Emotions are responses; they are there or they aren’t. How is the feeling of love demanded of us?

The Sfas Emes explains that the existence of the instruction can only mean that the emotion is not borne in a vacuum. The ability to love God is imbued in everyone, and is only dormant. The instruction is to find it.

The same is true of most (all..?) things. The Gemara says to believe someone who claims to discover something after hard work. Curiously, it says “discovers”, not “earns”. The word “discover” means dis-cover, or uncover. Electricity was discovered, not invented.

It is said that an angel teaches a child the entire spectrum of knowledge to a baby in the womb, but at birth, it is tapped on the face and forgets it all. This serves to illustrate that knowledge alone is not the goal. The curse of Adam is to toil and work hard. The Vilna Gaon points out that the knowledge is always there, but birth and life are a gift to enable the ability to earn it. Perhaps the curse of Adam isn’t really a curse at all then. The achievement has accrued value due to the effort put into its acquisition.

Perhaps then, the initial question is fundamentally flawed. Something has slipped under the radar. One of the Ten Commandments is לא תחמוד – Do not covet. Jealousy is an emotion too, yet there are no questions about commanding emotion.

The Ibn Ezra explains that emotions can actually be worked on – that is the subtext of the mitzva. The way to not be jealous of someone’s property is to view it as out of your league. Most normal people aren’t jealous that a billionaire owns a fleet of yachts or a private island in the Caribbean. The way to not be jealous is to understand that some people have yachts and islands, your friends have a house or car, and you have what you have. Jealousy is completely suppressed in this way – mitzva accomplished.

Working on this is deeply significant beyond the applications of jealousy. Simply put, is jealousy really one of the top ten laws of Judaism this top ten in Judaism? Consider then, that it appears in the Ten Commandments.

Perhaps the instruction is that emotional development is required of us. It starts with not being jealous, and can develop into וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ

Humility is one of the defining features of what it means to be a good person, and it was a characteristic closely associated with Yakov. When Yakov took stock of the blessing he had received, he recognised that he did not deserve the extent of what he had:

קָטֹנְתִּי מִכֹּל הַחֲסָדִים וּמִכָּל הָאֱמֶת אֲשֶׁר עָשִׂיתָ אֶת עַבְדֶּךָ – I am diminished from all the kindness You have done Your servant. (32:11)

Humility means having the measure of what you are and where you stand. Humility does not mean downplaying yourself or your achievements. There is a required dose of arrogance is absolutely necessary to have confidence and pride in yourself.

The tension between humility, arrogance, and confidence are ever-present. Curiously, the Gemara cryptically sets an oddly specific ratio of an eighth of an eighth. Yakov’s admission

The Vilna Gaon notes that Yakov’s admission is the eighth pasuk in the eighth parsha. Yakov does not believe his merits are worth what he was given, and our perspective should be the same.

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that the number eight is where natural and supernatural meet. Seven is a cycle, and eight is a restatement of what came before, an octave higher. It is a renewal of the wavelength of relationship. This is what Bris and Yovel signify. Eight makes the seven that come before meaningful.

We must not get carried away with what we have, and what we have achieved. All that we are exists for us to help those around us. But even if you do focus on everyone else, and acknowledge that your talents and achievements are from God, it is still possible to get caught up in why you specifcically have the gifts you do.

This is the second eighth. It is not enough to acknowledge your gifts. True humility is recognition that the fact of the gift is itself a gift, and not because you deserve it.

So pay it forward.