Humility is often understood as the antithesis of arrogance. From this perspective, just as arrogance is an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities, humility is a gross underestimation of them. In truth, however, the outlooks of both the exaggerator and the underestimator are fundamentally self-centered and focused on their own sense of importance and abilities, or lack thereof.

Both arrogance and false humility stem from the ego and are defined in relation and comparison to other people—either I am much better than my peers, or I am woefully worse. Regardless, such a perspective derives from deep insecurity and only serves to further separate one from their fellows, creating a false paradigm of competition between oneself and everyone else.

From a spiritual point of view, no human being is in competition with another.1 We each have our own unique gifts and potential, as well as a purpose that only we can accomplish. This personal mission is the reason our souls descended into this physical world in the first place. Herein lies the antidote to arrogance and false humility—recognizing that we each have our own inimitable purpose and have been given the gifts to carry it out, and the same goes for everyone else.

Perhaps to help cultivate this mindset, the great Chasidic master R. Simcha Bunim of Peshischa would always keep a piece of paper in each pocket. On one was written, “The whole world was created for me,”2 and on the other, “I am but a speck of dust.”3 These seemingly contradictory sentiments are the recipe for true humility—recognizing that each of us has a mission that only we can complete, and thus, in the words of the Chasdic masters, “The day you were born is the day G‑d decided that the world could not exist without you”; and yet, each of us is just one small piece of an infinitely complex and grand design.

It is from such an empowered and empathic place that we are able to acknowledge and even celebrate ourselves, including our strengths and capabilities, without compromising the value of humility.

For instance, the Mishnah teaches: “When Rebbi (R. Yehudah the Nasi) died, humility...disappeared.” In the ensuing Talmudic discussion, R. Yosef said, “Do not teach that humility disappeared, for I am still here (and I am humble—Rashi).”4

In the classical sense, to call attention to one’s own humility seems outright hypocritical.

However, the Talmud suggests that the truly humble person is not one who shrinks from positive self-acknowledgment, but one who is confidently aware of their own value.

R. Yosef was aware of his virtues and did not shy away from them or try to deny them. He was brutally honest with himself and others, and, equally important, he was willing to stand up and declare his own humility because that was simply the truth. He nevertheless epitomized true humility because he did not credit himself for his own talents and achievements. Instead, he appreciated that they were gifts from G‑d.5

Similarly, Moses, the greatest prophet and leader in Jewish history, is referred to in the Torah as the humblest man on the face of the earth.6 Although he was aware of the incredible feats he had achieved—standing up to Pharaoh, leading the Israelites out of Egypt and through the desert, speaking to G‑d face to face on Mount Sinai, etc.—he knew that his virtues and achievements were Divine gifts, and, furthermore, that if someone else had been in his shoes, they may have done a better job.

There is a crucial distinction here. The truly humble person recognizes the whole of who they are, including their abilities and achievements, not just their shortcomings. However, they don’t take credit for their qualities and accomplishments.

They know that all creativity, ingenuity, and insight come through us, not from us. This is why a talented person is called “gifted,” because everything is truly a gift from the Creator. Thus, to see oneself as worthless is not humility, it’s ingratitude. G‑d has blessed each one of us with unique qualities so we can utilize and make the most of them. In fact, it is only when we are aware of our self-worth that we can be truly humble. Then we can truthfully ask ourselves, “How am I using the Divine gifts that have been given to me? Am I reaching my own potential for greatness?”

This sentiment is powerfully encapsulated in the Hebrew word for humility, anavah. While the English word humility originates from the Latin, humilis, meaning meekness or lowliness,7 anavah stems from the word anu, meaning “to respond.”

For in Judaism, humility is rooted in a sense of responsibility and accountability. From this perspective, the awareness of privilege or proficiency does not perversely inflate one’s sense of self-worth and supremacy above others; rather, it fills one with immense gratitude and indebtedness, generating greater dedication to one’s mission.

In the words of American writer Frederick Buechner: “Your vocation in life is where your greatest talent and joy meets the world’s greatest needs.”

This is the work of humility.

In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins describes his observations of the world’s greatest executives and what they all have in common. He describes what he calls, “level five leaders,” which are leaders who display a powerful combination of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the greater cause—for the organization and its purpose—not for their own self-aggrandizement. In his experience, whenever there was a company that went from good to great, there was always an executive driving that transformation with this same alchemical mixture of qualities. Humility is, thus, the redemption of ambition. By directing one’s striving towards something larger than the self and anchoring their pursuit of excellence in a sense of responsibility to the greater whole, one becomes an instrument for positive change in the world.

The humble person therefore asks, “Why? Why did G‑d give me these talents or resources? What am I meant to do with them? What is the greater need or purpose towards which I can direct and dedicate my energy and passion?” All of life is spent refining the answers to these questions, while striving to utilize our gifts to the best of our abilities.

To quote American author Leo Buscaglia: “Your talent is G‑d’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to G‑d.”

This sensibility, so intrinsic to the quality of anavah, is expressed not just intrapersonally, but interpersonally as well. Humility is not only defined by a deep feeling of responsibility for one’s own gifts, but also by a heightened receptivity to the gifts of others.

In the words of R. Lord Jonathan Sacks: “True humility...does not mean undervaluing yourself. It means valuing other people.”8

Those who are truly humble do not focus solely on themselves; rather, they set their sights on how their gifts can serve the greater whole. They are thus able to stand in awe of the greatness of others, and even to help others see the gifts they possess more clearly. Such an ability to recognize and draw forth the greatness in others is the hallmark of great leaders.

Genuine humility means knowing and accepting who we are and who we are not; what we can do and what we cannot do. With this sense of personal clarity, we are able to see how we fit into the grand scheme of life, moving beyond ourselves to recognize, reveal, and revel in the greatness in others. It follows that real honor is not the honor we receive, but the honor we give. As the Mishnah says: “Who is honored? He who honors others!”

To summarize, in the stirring words of R. Sacks, “Humility 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.”

The Big Idea

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less.”9

It Happened Once

R. Lord Jonathan Sacks shares the following reflections based on an encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe:

“As a young man, full of questions about faith, I traveled 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, R. 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 traveled, 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 I 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…”10

“...It was an extraordinary gift. It was ‘royalty without a crown.’ It was ‘greatness in plain clothes.’ It taught me that humility is not thinking you are small. It is thinking that other people have greatness within them.”11