When G‑d called Moses to enter the Sanctuary for the first time, the verse states,1 Vayikra el Moshe, “And G‑d called to Moses.” The word vayikra is written with a small aleph, and the Baal HaTurim, in his commentary to this verse, says that Moses wrote this aleph smaller than the other letters, out of humility. Although Moses was singled out among all of the Jews and chosen to directly communicate with G‑d, he minimized the importance of this by writing the word as if it said vayikar—“and G‑d happened upon Moses.”2

Despite the fact that Moses was great in prophecy, Torah and wisdom, the trait that G‑d found fit to mention in the Torah was his humilityMoses was the most humble person on the face of the earth.3 Certainly Moses knew that he was the one chosen by G‑d to redeem the Jews from Egypt, to split the sea, to receive the Torah, and to lead the Jews through the desert. Nevertheless, Moses remained humble because he thought that if someone else had been born with the same qualities he had, that person might have exceeded his own accomplishments.

In a similar vein, Rav Yosef, a Talmudic sage, said about himself that he was an unusually humble man, on par with the extremely humble people of previous generations.4 Although he recognized his own humility, this didn’t detract from it.5

The Importance of Humility

Of humility and arrogance, it is said:6

  • If one is humble, it is as if he has offered all of the sacrifices.7
  • G‑d answers the prayers of a humble person.8
  • One who is humble is close to G‑d (i.e., G‑d resides within him).9
  • Despite the fact that Moses was great in prophecy, Torah and wisdom, the trait that G‑d found fit to explicitly mention in the Torah was his humility.10
  • Some are of the opinion that true humility is the highest spiritual level that can be achieved.11 For this reason, Isaiah refers to the Jewish people as “the humble ones.”12
  • One who raises himself up (i.e., behaves arrogantly), G‑d will bring him down. Whereas one who lowers himself (i.e., behaves humbly) will be raised up by G‑d.13
  • Fear of G‑d is considered a “crown” for wisdom, (i.e., a level higher than wisdom), but is a “sandal” (i.e., a preparatory stage) for humility.14
  • Who deserves the World to Come? One who is humble, stands humbly, walks humbly, and studies Torah constantly—yet doesn’t take credit for himself.15
  • G‑d chose the Jewish people because of their humility and the humility of the Patriarchs.16

Achieving Humility

One of the ways to achieve humility is to contemplate the fact that we come from a mere drop, and that we will ultimately return to dust.17

The chassidic masters explain that the more one is nullified before G‑d, the more humble one becomes in the face of G‑d’s infinite greatness.18 And specifically when a person experiences the kindness of G‑d, he should feel humbled.19 For more on this, see The Smallness of Jacob.

The Extent of Humility

Even if one is accorded honor by other people, he should accustom himself to remaining humbleAlthough generally one should strive towards the middle ground in all of one’s character traits (e.g., one should not be stingy nor should one give all of one’s belongings away), in the trait of humility one should go to the extreme and be completely self-effacing. As Rabbi Levitas of Yavneh taught, “One should be exceedingly humble.”20 In a similar vein, Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak said, “One should not have [arrogance], even a bit of it.”21

This quality was exhibited by Hillel, who, despite his stature as the leader of the Sanhedrin, would patiently answer everyone’s questions, even if they were posed at very inopportune times.22

Signs of Humility

There are many signs of true humility. Some of them are:

  • If you can forgive someone who wronged you, even though you have the power to take revenge. As the verse states: “Do not say, ‘As he did to me, so will I do to him; I will repay the man according to his deed.’”23
  • If difficult times befall a person, he should humbly accept G‑d’s judgment with love, knowing that for some reason he deserves this difficulty. As the prophet Amos said, “The wise at that time shall keep silent.”24
  • Even if one is accorded honor by other people, he should accustom himself to remaining humble. Our Patriarch Abraham behaved this way. When the Hittites of Hebron said to him, “You are a prince of G‑d amongst us,”25 he bowed in front of all the people of that land.26
  • Even if a person achieves a high rank in wisdom, wealth, or power, he should remain humble and continue behaving as he did before. As King Solomon says, “If the spirit of the ruler ascends upon you [i.e., you are raised to a position of honor by the king], do not leave your place [previous position of humility].”27
  • If a person sees suffering coming upon him, he should immediately repent from his bad ways and not postpone this due to haughtiness. When Ezra rebuked the former Babylonian exiles for their sins, they immediately repented.28
  • A person who is truly humble will share his possessions with others, because he doesn’t feel worthy of living a life of wealth while others are living a life of deprivation. Our Patriarch Abraham behaved this way. He was the paradigm of humility, as he said: “I am dust and ashes.”29 He also gave freely of his wealth to others.30

The Effects of Arrogance

If a wise man becomes arrogant, his wisdom will be taken from him
  • If someone is arrogant, G‑d says: “I and he cannot dwell together.”31
  • G‑d “despises” those with an arrogant heart.32
  • The Talmud33 says that the sin of arrogance can be equated to many major sins. When someone is arrogant, it is considered as if he is:
    1. Serving idols
    2. Denying the Creator
    3. Engaging in forbidden sexual relations
    4. Building a place of worship outside of the Holy Temple
  • Because of arrogance, even an otherwise great man has to suffer the experience of purgatory.34
  • In fact, he is not deserving of being resurrected at the time of resurrection.35
  • When G‑d bestows greatness on a person, he intends for it to extend to all his descendents. But if he becomes arrogant, G‑d will lower him.36
  • The arrogance of Jeroboam (the first king of the ten northern tribes) caused his death.37
  • If a wise man becomes arrogant, his wisdom will be taken from him. If a prophet becomes arrogant, he will lose his prophecy.38
  • The gentile kings Pharaoh, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, and Hiram all lost their kingdoms as a result of their arrogance.39