Dear Reader,

Once upon a time, humility was a sought-after trait. Our grandparents understood that if we didn’t develop a humble, selfless nature, then arrogance and self-centeredness would consume us. It wasn’t the loudest, boldest or overconfident individual who was most admired, but someone with inner dignity, refinement and modesty.

A dictionary definition of humility is: “a modest or low view of one’s own importance.” Examples given are: “Letting someone ahead of you in line when you see they are in a hurry” or “an athlete who credits his success to his teammates, even though he has great skill.”

Then our generation came along, and we realized that humility had a real down side. If someone has a “low view of his own importance,” always crediting others, he wouldn’t develop ambition. If we think we’re “lowly,” why even work towards improvement?

So a new trend started: Parents and educators began telling their children how special, worthy and unique they are. Self-esteem became the key to success in life.

The down side to this wash of self-esteem is that it leads to the preoccupation of the self. Social scientists now claim that narcissism has become “a modern epidemic” demonstrated by people needing excessive admiration and approval, while showing disregard for other people’s sensitivities. Coupled with a society that prizes fame, wealth and celebrity, we create people who seek only what they feel is best for them.

So which values should we be inculcating within ourselves and our children?

In his book of Tanya, the Alter Rebbe—Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi—addresses this dilemma.

The sages taught that before we were born, we needed to take an oath: “Be righteous. Don’t be wicked. Yet, even if the entire world tells you that you are righteous, think of yourself as though you are wicked.”

But this requires clarification, because it says in “The Ethics of the Fathers: to “never consider yourself wicked?”

Furthermore, if a person considers himself wicked, he will be disheartened and won’t be able to serve G‑d with joy. On the other hand, if he does not become depressed from this, he could come to treat life irreverently, G‑d forbid.

So, should we feel humbled and lowly (“wicked”), or will this just cause us to not treat life seriously?

The Alter Rebbe goes on to explains that every person is born with a G‑dly soul that has unbounded potential and can help us become the greatest spiritual beings. We also have an animalistic soul that seeks self-preservation and needs taming, or it can bring us to the lowest form of selfishness.

So it seems that we need to redefine humility and self-esteem. Self-esteem isn’t about self-aggrandizement, just as humility isn’t about feeling “lowly or unimportant.”

Realize your greatness, but recognize that your talent, abilities and your highest worth stems from the powerful, unlimited G‑dly soul that G‑d gave you. Feel humbled in appreciating your enormous, unbounded potential and your responsibility to use your gift to create heaven on earth.

Our greatness and humility must be intertwined, stemming precisely from our connection to the Infinite—and our duty to make our world more G‑dly.

Chana Weisberg
Editor, TJW