“How should I respond?” Rachel asked me.

Her mother-in-law had come last week to visit her. On the morning of her return flight, she hurried to pack her suitcase while Rachel made herself busy in the kitchen.

“What can I make for you to eat for the flight home?” Rachel asked.

“Oh, nothing. I’ll be fine, really. It’s only a short flight.”

“It’s not so short,” Rachel said. “Please, let me put together some food for you to take before you leave.”

But her mother-in-law insisted, “No, really, I will be just fine!”

So Rachel gave up.

Later that evening, she called her mother-in-law at home. “How are you, Mom? How was your flight?”“Oy!” Rachel responded, her guilt kicking in at full force. “I should have made you food for the plane.”

“It was fine.”

“I’m glad. How are you feeling?”

“Well, to tell you the truth, I really don’t feel well right now. I have a huge headache from flying, and I’m exhausted. But don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I was just so hungry and dehydrated—I didn’t want to buy food at the airport because it’s outrageously expensive. Have you seen what they charge for a bottle of water at the airport?!”

“Oy!” Rachel responded, her guilt kicking in at full force. “I should have made you food for the plane.”

“Don’t worry, honey, I know how it is. You were so busy with the kids ... ”

“It’s strange,” Rachel concluded her story to me. “I know she was just trying to take up less of my time by turning down my offer. But ultimately, she called more attention to herself by being selfless.”

Humility is a sticky trait.

Humility is taught to be the ultimate virtue. Here’s a case in point. The Torah doesn’t spill much ink complimenting people. In fact, it doesn’t make any special mention of Moses’ wisdom or leadership skills. But it does take a moment to extol his humility:

“Moses was a more humble man than any other man on the face of the earth.”1

In the 18th century, the teachings of the saintly Baal Shem Tov instigated a grassroots movement that later became known as Chassidism. One of the fundamentals of his philosophy—which was based on the teachings of the Talmud—was the value of humility. The simple Jew, he taught, could reach profound spiritual heights because of his humility. And arrogance, he taught, was the Satan in disguise.

So humility is a virtue. But then again, so is self-assertion.

The Code of Jewish Law opens with the following bit of advice: “Don’t be intimidated by the scoffers.” Without self-confidence, it’s going be awfully hard to be a committed Jew.The Code of Jewish Law opens with the following bit of advice: “Don’t be intimidated by the scoffers.”

Psychologists have pointed out that a sense of personal value and self-esteem is one of the most essential ingredients of mental health. Self-confidence also breeds optimism, resilience and charisma—all the makings of a successful leader.

Which is why it seems unusual that Moses—the greatest leader in history—is noted for his humility. Moses had guts. He rallied for the rights of his oppressed brethren and risked his life for their freedom. He was decisive. When the Jews acted out of line, he told them so in no uncertain terms. When Korach challenged his authority, Moses stood up for himself as the authentic leader of the Jewish people. And yet, G‑d praises Moses for his humility!

This is because a deeper examination of the nature of humility and self-assertion reveals that not only are they not mutually exclusive qualities, but that indeed, one cannot operate without the other.

How often do we resist asserting ourselves because we’re too self-conscious? We take our flaws so seriously that they paralyze us. Like the perfectionist who can’t finish a project because it’s not spectacular. When “humility” disempowers us, we know that we’re taking our ego too seriously.

Ironically, self-assertion often demands a lot of humility. Doing something out of the ordinary requires putting our image on the line. It means that I care more about my truth than what other people think about me. This is self-esteem that is rooted in soul-consciousness.

When G‑d looked at all that Moses had accomplished as a leader, He saw profound humility. Moses knew that his life had a purpose: to lead the Jewish nation out of Egypt and to the threshold of the Holy Land. G‑d granted him the talents necessary to complete his mission. Beyond that, it was up to Moses to utilize every ounce of his G‑d-given personality for that mission. What made him so effective and so decisive was his humble commitment to his life’s purpose.

Moses’ life was the fusion of humility and personal power. It’s a skillful art, but one that any Jew can and must develop. That’s why G‑d chose to give us the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Sinai was a small mountain. The Midrash tells us that G‑d chose Mount Sinai, and not a more impressive mountain, to teach us the value of humility. The question, of course, is this: If humility is paramount, why did G‑d give us the Torah on a mountain at all? Why not a plain or even a valley? The mere term  “Mount Sinai” is an oxymoron. It’s a mountain, towering and majestic. And it’s Sinai, meager compared to her sister mountains, humble.If humility is paramount, why did G‑d give us the Torah on a mountain at all?

The Torah portion of Behar2 begins with the words, “G‑d spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai (behar Sinai) ... ” We call the portion “Behar”—on the mountain. Not even Behar Sinai, on the humblest mountain, but just “on the mountain.” When G‑d gave us the Torah and inaugurated us into Jew-hood, He said: “You are going to need to be real strong to be a Jew.” Be a mountain. Have a backbone. Be a charismatic light unto the nations, and don’t give a hoot if people laugh at you.

But be a humble mountain. Humble in your recognition that your strength comes from G‑d. Your life’s value is not about your image, it’s about your higher calling. Don’t measure yourself against the standards set by your neighbors; measure yourself against your soul’s potential.

That’s humility.3