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How to be Humble without being a Wimp

How to be Humble without being a Wimp

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Question:

Should I be humble or should I be assertive? These are both supposedly good things to be, but one precludes the other, doesn't it?

Answer:

There are many reasons for being humble. Here are some of the common ones:

  1. You think you're kind of ugly and stupid.
  2. You perceive that people like you better when you are humble.
  3. It's just your nature to be humble and keep your mouth shut.
  4. You keep on falling on your face, so what's there to be proud of?
  5. You didn't sleep well last night, so you're kind of depressed.

There are also many reasons for being assertive:

  1. You think you're real handsome and smart.
  2. You perceive that people listen to you and do what you want when you assert yourself.
  3. It's just the way you are.
  4. Nobody but you knows how to do things right.
  5. You didn't sleep well last night, so you're in a barking mood.

Looks like humility and guts are not compatible bedfellows. So that's not going to work. Is there an alternative?

There must be. Moses, the Torah tells us, was the "most humble of all men upon the face of the earth." Yet he had the spunk to stand up to Pharaoh and even argue with G‑d Himself. King David sang, "I am a worm and not a man." He meant it from the bottom of his heart, but you should have seen him swing that sword on the battlefield. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus was known for his humility—he would never say a word of Torah that he did not hear from his teacher—yet he was in constant altercation with his colleagues and stood his ground to the end. The same with Rabbi Akiva, who was so humble he sat in a class of small children at the age of forty—and yet stood in fearless rebellion against the awesome Roman Empire.

So how did these guys manage to swing two opposite attitudes at once?

Turns out there's an alternative form of humility. A humility that has nothing to do with self-deprecation, sheepish nature or even insomnia. It also turns out that the same humility comes with a sense of power—but not the sense of power that comes out of ego, pushiness or indigestion. Quite the opposite.

It's the sense of, "Yes I know who I am, what I can do and what I can't. But I stand in the presence of something much larger than my little self, so much larger that there isn't any room left for any vestige of my own ego. Something before which a thousand universes are less than dust and from which all things extend. Something which is infinite, transcendent and yet pervades all things."

Sensing the presence of the Infinite is kind of humbling, just like, say, standing before some incredible genius, superhero type you really admire. Only that this is Infinite. That's big. Very big.

Sensing the Infinite is also very empowering. Because you can't sense the Infinite without becoming absorbed within it. And filled with infinite power, yourself.

There, in that space, humility and guts don't struggle with one another. There, all your faculties are united as one to fly high above any challenge, smash through the most impervious obstacle, take on the entire world without flinching. And yet, all of you is but a transparent window for the Infinite Light to shine into the world.

Like Moses, like King David, like Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. Transparent heroes.

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Malka Novitsky July 7, 2017

Conceptualizing Transparency, works well for meditation and letting G-d's light shine through, becoming invisible. Yasher koach. Reply

Kenny - K Howard Weston Shropshire England - UK May 6, 2014

Humbled by our G-d Thank you all at Chadbad.org.

I am so blessed that G-d chose me from the dust of this earth, even when in the shadow of the Lilies, He our Elohim considers my Tefillah, together we are more than just a prayer, we are His fulfillment Israel!. Reply

astromuffy ottawa, canada August 10, 2012

Life Keeps Me Humble, Ha ha! I'm not allowed to get too big for my britches. I don't get to enjoy that feeling of sanctimonious pomposity for more than a second before the smack down comes so I kept humble. But I have had to learn to balance humility and assertiveness. I'm doing it!! OMG I'm doing it! It's enough to make me feel sanctimonious and pompous! But I'm too well trained for that now. I find the real strength in humility is how it keeps thinkin in perspective, which makes life easier. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario July 16, 2012

Re: nice but doesn't answer question Exactly. Which is why, when you're personally involved, you need to ask the opinion of a non-subjective party. And if there is a halacha involved (such as what constitutes a disturbance in shul), then it's a question for a rav.

That's not being a wimp, that's acknowledging your own human bias. Reply

Adam Jerusalem, Israel July 14, 2012

Re: Re: nice but doesn't answer question My example is just one example!

When there is clear injustice in the world the 'transparent hero' knows what he must do.

However when the injustice is personal the answer is not so clear.

Utopia focuses on responsibilities not rights. But should one take responsibility for others happiness over the right to be happy oneself?

PS The 'Ask the Rabbi' directed me to here :-) Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario July 13, 2012

Re: nice but doesn't answer question You have a question, but there is a halacha involved. It has to be answered by a rav with the authority to decide on such issues. If you need help finding a rav, please contact our Ask the Rabbi team via "Ask the Rabbi" at the very top of this page. Reply

Adam Jerusalem, Israel July 13, 2012

Nice but doesn't answer question Summed up simply. Real Confidence isn't about showing off.

But what do you do with it?

i.e....I enjoyed my Rosh Hashana praying in Yeshiva by fervently clapping, which irritated an older man visiting. He asked me to stop.

With confidence do I :
1) Tell him to mind his own business?
2) Ignore him?
3) Stop?

Or is there perhaps a higher way? Reply

Lynnette Bellingham, WA July 27, 2010

Well Said You put into words what I've felt and could never figure out why I felt that way. thank you. I just started back to school after 16yrs and have to do an essay. I'm so nervous and had to come up with a topic. the word humble came to thought and there popped-up your essay. Reply

Eric S. Kingston north hollywood, ca February 9, 2010

Attributes G-d is known by His Attributes. So too is man, created in His Image. Be humble when you need to be humble, assertive when you need to be assertive, silent when you need to be silent, in this way you will speak truth and created the needed change and set the needed example, as The Talmud said, "words that emanate from the heart, enter the heart." Reply

Richard Yonkers, NY August 21, 2009

A great essay This hits the nail-on-the-head on what appropriate humility is. Thanks. Reply

Michael Rifareal Naga City, Philippines May 3, 2008

Thank you! Really enlightning and a striking article, hope you can expand it more! Reply

Micha'el D. Lucas Hamilton, TX December 27, 2007

Walking a Tight Rope.. Even though Torah encourages us to do the impossible, we must remind ourselves its the Torah doing the impossible! G-d loves us as His Children, and we must remind ourselves that when the chips are down, pray, and study Torah! The answer may not be far! Reply

shmuel Brooklyn, NY December 19, 2007

I have struggled with humility and assertiveness This brief article definitely shed light on how to work on striking that balance. More please if possible.Thank you. Reply

Pat Baxley Post, Texas December 18, 2007

when the chips are down, bold walks in Rabbi Freeman, I just wanted to say thanks for all the articles you do. They
really speak to my heart and explain a lot of things. Even things which I
have experienced but didn't know what to call it. For instance, back in
1989, I was held against my will by a mad man. He was screaming foul
language at me while waving a sawed off shotgun in my face. He said he was
going to kill me and then go to my house and kill my husband and 4 year old
son. I knew he really meant it.
Now, I am not a bold person ordinarily, but I guess I was backed into a
corner with no place to go. All of a sudden it was like G-d stood up inside
of me and I was 10 feet tall. I pointed my finger at him and in a voice I
didn't know I had, I said " Whatever you are, you are forbidden to cause
this man to do this evil thing." His whole countenance changed, he threw the
shotgun down and said, "Pat, what am I doing?" Everything was back to
normal. I will never forget that night. I am thankful that I've not been
backed into another corner like that one since that time. Reply

Michal Evenari Tittling, Germany December 17, 2007

transparent window, the Infinite shining through Hi, Rabbi Freeman,
How I loved this article. From childhood on I was told: "You are not humble. G-d loves only the humble ones." And even now I hear that I must learn humility. After reading your article I felt really good. Of course I feel tiny in the presense of the Infinite. Thats natural. And as I LOVE G-d and rely on Him, I hope that His infinite light is shining through me. Tomorrow I have to talk about Judaism in two 8th grade classes in school. I feel a little uneasy, but when I think, I can be a transparent window... I feel better.
I hope it will be like that. You gave me ometz with your article. I am less afraid. Thank you! Reply

Chaya Rivka CA December 17, 2007

You have to be humble and realize that there is something greater than yourself. At the same time, you have to stand up for what's right and not let yourself be walked on. Reply

Elizabeth via chabadofbakersfield.com December 16, 2007

Stop being a doormat Tzvi, the article is full of humor. My mother always adviced us to be humble when we confront the poor or the mean people. By doing so, we carry the light.

I have learned from my own experience that being too humble can lead one to be a doormat where the other can step all over. I have heard the wives plaint that "I am a doormat and my husband stepped all over me."
My advice, have that G-d given boldness and stop being a doormat and be an equal partner instead. Flex your muscle for a change.

Being humble is not a weakness and many men think that if they are humble with their wives or their girl friends they are called 'hen-pecked husbands.' Simply have both characteristics: humble or meekness or bold and courageous. You decide! Reply

Laya Tzfat, Israel December 16, 2007

Please keep writing! You shine such light into this world! Thank you! Reply

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