The holy rabbi entered the empty synagogue one day and prostrated himself before the ark proclaiming, “Oh L‑rd, what am I? I am but dust. I am nothing!”

The cantor happened to be walking down the corridor and heard the rabbi’s confession, so he too went up to the ark and proclaimed, “G‑d Almighty, what am I? I am but an empty shell. I am absolutely nothing!”

Then the shamash (caretaker) overheard the cantor, and he too joined them at the ark, announcing, “Dear G‑d, who am I and what am I? I am of no substance whatsoever. I am zero. I am nothing!”

Whereupon the cantor whispered to the rabbi, “Humph … have a look and see who else thinks he’s a nothing!”

As Golda Meir once told someone, “Don’t be so humble. You’re not that great.

Just last week I wrote about how highly humility is valued in Jewish thought. But believe it or not, too much humility—like too much of anything—can be detrimental.

We used Moses to illustrate that the truly great are truly humble, but there was a time when even Moses was too humble—humble to a fault.

Moses was tending to Jethro’s sheep when he noticed the Burning Bush,1 his very first Divine revelation. There, the simple shepherd was given the mandate to become the faithful Shepherd of Israel and redeem the people from Egyptian bondage.

G‑d told Moses to go back to Egypt and tell old Pharaoh to free the Israelites.

And what was Moses’ response? He gave the Almighty a long list of arguments.

“Who am I? Little old me to go to the court of the mighty king of Egypt?”

And when the Almighty reassured him that He would be there with him, supporting him all the way, Moses still hesitated.

“Who shall I say sent me?” he asked.

And even when G‑d gave him the answer he persisted, “What if he won’t believe me?”

So, G‑d showed Moses miracles and wondrous symbols to prove that his mission was by heavenly authority. But he still resisted, this time arguing that he has a speech impediment. Then, to top it all off, after G‑d promised to teach him what to say, Moses still asked G‑d to send someone else—anyone but him.

Eventually, the Almighty appeared to lose patience with His chosen messenger and coined that now-famous expression, “Just do it!” So, Moses went to Egypt and, of course, the rest is history.

But did you know that by Moses initially declining to go on that fateful mission, his brother Aaron became G‑d’s spokesperson, and, later on, the first High Priest, privileges which were originally meant for Moses?2 That’s right, sometimes too much humility can be counterproductive.

So where do we use humility and where do we not?

The great 19th century Chassidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshischa, once famously taught:

Every person must have two pockets. And inside each pocket must be a little piece of paper. The paper inside the right pocket should have the words, Bishvili nivra ha-olam (“the whole world was created for me”). 3 And the paper inside the left pocket should have the words, Va’anochi afar va’efer (“I am but dust and ashes”). 4

We need to be able to find the appropriate attitude for every occasion and situation. If we are feeling down and depressed, we need to be reminded that “the world was created for me.” G‑d put us here; He must think we have a contribution to make. Otherwise, why were we created? That idea should get us moving. But if we get carried away with our own importance, we also need to remember the words of our illustrious father Abraham who said, “I am but dust and ashes.” In the grand scheme of things, we really are “nothing.”

And yes, there is a fine tension playing out here. These are two distinctly different approaches to life. But we need both. And being aware of these two opposite perspectives gives us a healthy balance. As has rightly been said, “You are unique. Just like everyone else.”

The other thing about having too much humility is that we may sometimes use it to avoid responsibility. When asked to do something for the community or get involved in a project, we may feign humility. Are we unequal to the task, or are we just copping out? It’s easy to say, “I can’t,” or “Sorry, I’ll never manage,” or “Regretfully unable.” You know why it’s easy? Because it’s convenient. Denying our innate abilities expediently exempts us from responsibility.

But if we have what it takes, then we are expected to do the job. Opting out on the grounds of humility may come from a sense of fear, laziness, or a bit of both, but clearly, it can also be a cop-out. Humility should never be an excuse for underachieving. Yes, acknowledging our strengths will very likely result in us being asked to take on more. But that’s what we are here for. Life is not an accident, and our personality profile isn’t irrelevant heredity. It is a gift, a blessing, and, yes, a responsibility. With privilege always comes responsibility. As Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber of Lubavitch once said, “Just as a person ought to know his own shortcomings, he should know the positive qualities that he possesses.”5

Parshat Tzav6 reminds us of this same balancing act. The very same Kohen who enjoyed the sacred task of working with the offerings on the Altar of G‑d was also expected to clean up the ashes. Here is a holy minister of G‑d engaged in the most spiritual of services, and his next job is to clean out the trash! Can you imagine the president of the United States or any other world leader taking out the garbage at the White House?!

The Rebbe emphasizes7 that the same Kohen who does the popular jobs has to be ready to do the unpopular ones. You don’t get to pick and choose. You are important. But, hey, maybe you’re not so important after all. The Kohen may not desist from the unpleasant and messy tasks in the Temple. They are all holy. The honorable ceremonies are nice and gratifying, but sometimes we must put on our overalls, roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty, and do the unpleasant jobs.

Yes, we should certainly be humble people. But we should never be so humble that we miss out on our mission and purpose in life, and on all the incredible potential that we might accomplish. If G‑d had let Moses off the hook at the Bush, we might never have heard of him, and we might still be slaves in Egypt.