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On Humility

On Humility

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How virtues change! Moses, the greatest hero of Jewish tradition, is described by the Bible as "a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth." By today's standards he was clearly wrongly advised. He should have hired an agent, sharpened up his image, let slip some calculated indiscretions about his conversations with the Almighty and sold his story to the press for a six-figure sum. With any luck, he might have landed up with his own television chat show, dispensing wisdom to those willing to bare their soul to the watching millions. He would have had his fifteen minutes of fame. Instead he had to settle for the lesser consolation of three thousand years of moral influence.

Humility is the orphaned virtue of our age. Charles Dickens dealt it a mortal blow in his portrayal of the unctuous Uriah Heep, the man who kept saying, "I am the 'umblest person going." Its demise, though, came a century later with the threatening anonymity of mass culture alongside the loss of neighbourhoods and congregations. A community is a place of friends. Urban society is a landscape of strangers. Yet there is an irrepressible human urge for recognition. So a culture emerged out of the various ways of "making a statement" to people we do not know, but who, we hope, will somehow notice. Beliefs ceased to be things confessed in prayer and became slogans emblazoned on t-shirts. A comprehensive repertoire developed of signalling individuality, from personalized number-plates, to in-your-face dressing, to designer labels worn on the outside, not within. You can trace an entire cultural transformation in the shift from renown to fame to celebrity to being famous for being famous. The creed of our age is, "If you've got it, flaunt it." Humility, being humble, did not stand a chance.

This is a shame. Humility -- true humility -- is one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people. It signals a certain openness to life's grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it. I learned the meaning of humility from my late father. He had come over to this country at the age of five, fleeing persecution in Poland. His family was poor and he had to leave school at the age of fourteen to support them. What education he had was largely self-taught. Yet he loved excellence, in whatever field or form it came. He had a passion for classical music and painting, and his taste in literature was impeccable, far better than mine. He was an enthusiast. He had -- and this was what I so cherished in him -- the capacity to admire. That, I think, is what the greater part of humility is, the capacity to be open to something greater than oneself. False humility is the pretence that one is small. True humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness, which is why it is the virtue of prophets, those who feel most vividly the nearness of G‑d.

As a young man, full of questions about faith, I travelled to the United States where, I had heard, there were outstanding rabbis. I met many, but I also had the privilege of meeting the greatest Jewish leader of my generation, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Heir to the dynastic leadership of a relatively small group of Jewish mystics, he had escaped from Europe to New York during the Second World War and had turned the tattered remnants of his flock into a worldwide movement. Wherever I travelled, I heard tales of his extraordinary leadership, many verging on the miraculous. He was, I was told, one of the outstanding charismatic leaders of our time. I resolved to meet him if I could.

I did, and was utterly surprised. He was certainly not charismatic in any conventional sense. Quiet, self-effacing, understated, one might hardly have noticed him had it not been for the reverence in which he was held by his disciples. That meeting, though, changed my life. He was a world-famous figure. I was an anonymous student from three thousand miles away. Yet in his presence I seemed to be the most important person in the world. He asked me about myself; he listened carefully; he challenged me to become a leader, something I had never contemplated before. Quickly it became clear to me that he believed in me more than I believed in myself. As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. Perhaps that is what listening is, considered as a religious act. I then knew that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards. There was no grandeur in his manner; neither was there any false modesty. He was serene, dignified, majestic; a man of transcending humility who gathered you into his embrace and taught you to look up.

True virtue never needs to advertise itself. That is why I find the aggressive packaging of personality so sad. It speaks of loneliness, the profound, endemic loneliness of a world without relationships of fidelity and trust. It testifies ultimately to a loss of faith -- a loss of that knowledge, so precious to previous generations, that beyond the visible surfaces of this world is a Presence who knows us, loves us, and takes notice of our deeds. What else, secure in that knowledge, could we need? Time and again, when conducting a funeral or visiting mourners, I discover that the deceased had led a life of generosity and kindness unknown to even close relatives. I came to the conclusion -- one I never dreamed of before I was given this window into private worlds - that the vast majority of saintly or generous acts are done quietly with no desire for public recognition. That is humility, and what a glorious revelation it is of the human spirit.

Humility, then, is more than just a virtue: it is a form of perception, a language in which the "I" is silent so that I can hear the "Thou", the unspoken call beneath human speech, the Divine whisper within all that moves, the voice of otherness that calls me to redeem its loneliness with the touch of love. Humility is what opens us to the world.

And does it matter that it no longer fits the confines of our age? The truth is that moral beauty, like music, always moves those who can hear beneath the noise. Virtues may be out of fashion, but they are never out of date. The things that call attention to themselves are never interesting for long, which is why our attention span grows shorter by the year. Humility -- the polar opposite of "advertisements for myself" -- never fails to leave its afterglow. We know when we have been in the presence of someone in whom the Divine presence breathes. We feel affirmed, enlarged, and with good reason. For we have met someone who, not taking himself or herself seriously at all, has shown us what it is to take with utmost seriousness that which is not I.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit www.rabbisacks.org.
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Anonymous August 13, 2013

Your definition of humility as absence of self in the face of greatness is perfect. This, for me, is what Judaism is all about. Reply

Reginald Stout Tucson June 8, 2013

As always, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has shared some incredible insight and understanding. I will always treasure what I have just read about "humility" in this article because it is truly life changing and so fully reflects HaShem's wisdom and His true nature. Thank you Rabbi Sack's for all that you have given and poured into my life with your teachings.

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C.Lynn Chehalis, WA May 12, 2012

This is a wonderful definition of Humility, and a much needed reminder of this virtue's importance in a world that has lost the meaning of it, and the desire for it. At times I even see people mistake a person’s humility for a lack of self-esteem, because this world has become so centered on "I". Confidence does not equal a boisterous pride, but instead is found within the tranquility of one’s own faith and humility.

Thank you Rabbi Jonathan Sacks- your words are wise and valuable. Reply

bhart Ottumwa, Iowa July 13, 2011

A wise man once told me; "do no search for humility, but rather eliminate the opposites of this virtue" . And so I began a lifelong process of reducing the anger, fear, intolerance, dishonesty and bias from my thinking and behaviour. Now at 73, I realize I have only made a small notch in the corrosive facets of my life. On judgement day I will have little to present for my case. I certainly hope he credits my trying. Thank you Rabbi for sharing your wealth. Reply

Laurie Montijo San Diego, USA January 6, 2011

possibly courage share your personal experiences in such a way that brings the sense of humility right into one's soul. Well mine anyway. I find myself at a loss to for words to express the awe I felt reading your very personal experience of humility through words. I was looking for the definition of humility as you have shared your personal experiences with and of humility. I was attempting to find a fairly simple definition of true humility that you capture here with someone I do not know well and couldn't find anything that even closely expresses what your father brought to this world and you appear to enjoy as well. Thank you very much for touching my soul and reminding me of the true nature and experience of humility. Thank you for sharing your intimate and personal experiences that brought great joy to me and clearly others. God bless you and us all! Reply

yanuario elias los angeles August 6, 2010

I was looking for material on humiliity to preach a message to our youth; found what I was looking for. May the Lord bless you so you can keep teaching us. Reply

Miss Gabriela Facciolo May 30, 2010

Thank you for this lesson on humility. It really motivated me to possess such a virtue. Reply

Christie Des Moines May 26, 2010

A wonderful definition of humility. Thank you Reply

bee Montreal May 25, 2010

I have heard many discussions on the concept of humility, but this is the first time I read something that resonates within me. Thank you for outlining our work so clearly. I am also so touched by the poignant description of your meeting with the Rebbe. Wishing you much continued success. Reply

shem q.c, philippines April 24, 2009

im so impressed about this essay. Now I can do my work also. This kind of essay is really good. And I recommend this kind of work. Reply

Anonymous June 12, 2008

This article touched my soul, thank you! Reply

Jan Schulman Oxnard, CA June 12, 2008

I am so impressed by T. Diane Smith's activities in reaching out to troubled children in locked facilities. Mazel Tov to you and to the children you work with! I hope you will continue your good works and be successful in them! I believe that helping children is one of the greatest things we can do. I wish I knew something to recommend. I think it might be helpful for them to see "Paper Clips" a DVD documentary that tells a remarkable story of how teachers and children can make a huge difference. I highly recommend it. Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario April 8, 2008

Several teachers have had success using the KabbalaToons for this type of thing. They play an episode, discuss, then play it again. The associated blog provides material for discussion, as do many of the reader comments.

Here's the link to the KabbalaToons archive: www.chabad.org/618087

You can download each one to your computer--just follow the instructions beneath the frame. You can also play them full screen by clicking the "Full Screen" link--also beneath the frame. Reply

T. Diane Smith San Antonio, Texas, USA April 4, 2008

I have been taught that humility is to see myself exactly as I am, no better or worse than I am, and in relation to and a part of all that is.
I really like the essay here. I am in the process of developing a curriculum on values for kids in locked facilities, either because of their own actions or as a result of trauma and abuse that has been done to them. For most, there is durg and alcohol abuse involved as well. I want to start with a short essay on a particular value each week, followed by the kids discussing what they think of the information presented in the essay. Do you have suggestions for sources of readings on specific values? I would be grateful for any help that you could offer. Reply

Anonymous Cario, Egypt August 2, 2007


These are wonderful ideas which prove that the basics of all three religions, and probably, of all religions, are the same. I am a Muslim, but I believe that Mr. Sacks speaks exactly what is in my religion. He is a great writer with perceptive ideas. I always wanted to contact him thank him for what he writes. For me he stands for mutuality of religions, dialogue as a means to solve the problems of the world and for real love of the other. I even aspired for writing a book in which a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim will co-author on the idea of the validity of dialogue for solving the urgent proplems of the age. I thought of John L. Esposito, another great defender of dialogue, as the third co-author. I admire what Mr. Sacks wrote in his wonderful book The Dignity of Difference.
My Ph. D. is on English literature, but I am interested in writing on religion as a means to solve modern problems.
Congratulations Mr. Sacks on being so great and loving. Reply

Anonymous nairobi, kenya June 6, 2007

The humility of the Rebbe here, despite a great leadership record, is touching. Meek Moses had shown the way. Consider also the absolute humility of G-d: though absolutely present in our physical space and practically running the show, He contracts His Presence into nill, only our presence is really perceived. Reply

Ramin los angeles, ca June 1, 2007

This brought perspective to myself. I will share this with many people. Never underestimate the power of action and inaction. Reply

Anonymous Woodland Hills, California USA May 28, 2007

Brilliant..aglow with truth. Reply

Helga Hudspeth Leavenworth, WA June 20, 2004

This year, unlike last year or any other time before that, I keep coming back to things written about the Rebbe's Yahrzeit. I'm not going to waste time questioning the why of this. Instead I'm simply going to be here; obviously it's where I'm supposed to be at this point in my life.

I was reading Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Sacks' article with interest until I came to a certain part. And when I came to that part, the interest disappeared and was replaced by something much deeper. I don't have a name for it. I can only say that inside myself I became very very still.

It was this part: "As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. "

His absence...... his absence.......

And then, there was: " ........Humility, then, is more than just a virtue: it is a form of perception, a language in which the "I" is silent so that I can hear the 'Thou'......."

And then there was the rabbi's very last paragraph.

What I feel is not excitement. I need to be alone with that stillness that is inside me now. Reply

Anonymous Tulsa, Ok June 17, 2004

Beautiful. Reply