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.