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How to be Humble without being a Wimp

How to be Humble without being a Wimp



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?


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, 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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Discussion (17)
May 6, 2014
Humbled by our G-d
Thank you all at

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!.
Kenny - K Howard Weston
Shropshire England - UK
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.
ottawa, canada
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.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Thornhill, Ontario
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 :-)
Jerusalem, Israel
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.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Thornhill, Ontario
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?
Jerusalem, Israel
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.
Bellingham, WA
February 9, 2010
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."
Eric S. Kingston
north hollywood, ca
August 21, 2009
A great essay
This hits the nail-on-the-head on what appropriate humility is. Thanks.
Yonkers, NY
May 3, 2008
Thank you!
Really enlightning and a striking article, hope you can expand it more!
Michael Rifareal
Naga City, Philippines