I was at a lecture where a woman walked in 15 minutes late, spotted a chair off to the side, and dragged it front and center of the room, causing a cascade of people to rubberneck around her. Ironically, the lecturer happened to be speaking (at that exact moment) about the power of teshuvah as the abilityIt's tough to look at yourself realistically to change and repair oneself, along with the challenge of the critical and honest self-examination that is required for change. “Let’s face it,” she said, “it’s tough to look at yourself realistically in the mirror.” Especially when someone is blocking my view, I was thinking. As if on cue, another person then walked into the lecture, grabbed a folding chair, and after eying the situation, set up her chair on the far side of the room, making sure not to impede anyone’s vision. You see? That’s how it’s done. How hard was that? The universe is giving you a chance for a do-over. It’s not too late. Move your chair. Save your soul!

What makes one person aware and considerate of the needs of others, while another person lacks social intelligence? What allows someone to be thoughtfully cognizant of his or her place, while others behave as if they were the center of the universe? Why do some people suffer from illusions of grandeur and take up too much space, while others suffer from delusions of mediocrity and take up too little? More importantly, why am I at one time or another all of these people? Since behavior follows identity, how can I shift my mindset to align my inner self so that the right response will more naturally ensue?

Torah Come From on High and Lifts Us Up

Behar means “on the mountain,” and as the place from which G‑d spoke to the Jewish people, it is befitting that Divine Revelation would come from an abode of lofty stature—a place we look up to, both literally and figuratively. Think of the figures of speech that describe good behaviors: When we step outside of our comfort zone to do something brave, we “rise to the occasion.” When we resist the temptation to respond to provocation in an ungallant manner, we “rise above it.” Similarly, when we refuse to be baited by indignities and act in an improper way, we are refusing to “stoop to their level.” We perceive “high” as noble and virtuous, whereas “low” is the opposite. And yet, the Midrash tells us that “the mountain” was “Mount Sinai,” which our sages describe not as the highest summit, but as the smallest and lowest of mountains.

Similarly, Moses is defined as the humblest of men, and yet the greatest prophet who ever lived. Is greatness at one end of the spectrum, whereas humility is at the other? Or, does humility, properly understood, contain within it the characteristics that we associate with greatness, such as significance, courage, wisdom and strength? Is humility a fixed trait, or is it more of an array of available choices and behaviors?

Occupying Your Rightful Space

I was at a breakout session at a conference, in which this was the very topic. The common misperception of humility is that humble people lack self-esteem or self-worth. We discussed how true humility is expressed through a nuanced range of characteristics that can meet a situation with appropriate behavior. True humility responds in a way that is right for the situation, sensing what the circumstances need and what is being called for in the moment.

For example, if you see injustice or harm or are present to a conversation that is going in the wrong direction, it is not humble to be quiet or refrain from acting on the basis of “who am I to take action?” Properly understood, humility is neither passive; nor is it fear-based. When we step up, make our voices heard and own our space—not out of ego and the need to be right, but from the desire to serve the moment—then even strong and unequivocal actions are nevertheless sourced in humility. And that’s the key; what’s driving you? Is it about you, or is it for someone or something else? Humility doesn’t ask you to think less of yourself; instead, think of others a little more.

Making Room for Others

And so mostly, humility asks you to hold back. Imagine someone excitedly explaining an idea to you, where you not only get the idea, but you get it even better than the person telling you. The natural response would be to jump in and steal their thunder, whereas humility would patiently hold the space for the person to unfold their ideas to you. Sometimes, the right action is to solve someone’s problem; other times, humility will call for you to support the person with loving confidence that they will figure it out. Humility gives you the emotional mastery to meet anger with curiosity and even compassion, as well as not jumping to instant opinions and judgments as things are unfolding. If humility is about occupying your rightful space, then it is also about respecting boundaries because you need to understand where you end and another person begins, and not rob them of their journey and growth processes.

In the desert, the Jewish people had to be humble enough to empty their egos to receive the Torah. Yet when the Jewish people are filled with Torah, they have majestic strength and stature. These are two sides of the same coin. So what throws us off our game? When we get hooked or triggered—or our judgmental buttons get pushed—then our ability to choose our preferable state becomes compromised. But if we can take a breath, a pause and regulate ourselves, we can pull up out of a negative nosedive and get back to center. And in our centeredness, we become more conscious and resourceful, and are more likely to choose a mindful identity and a course of action.

The Goldilocks Approach

In the classic work, Duties of the Heart, Rabbi Baycha Ibn Pekuda asks: “On what do the virtues depend?” And he answers: “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.”The development of humility is a lifelong process Without humility, it’s impossible to look in the mirror and assess yourself realistically. Either your flaws will be invisible so that you can’t work on them, or in your overly critical mind, the only thing you can see are your weaknesses, and you will be mired in dysfunctional despair. In the false guise of humility, never shrink from what must be done. But in the delusions of an unbounded ego, don’t take up space that is not rightfully yours. Try the Goldilocks Approach: not too much, not too little, but just right.

The development of humility is a lifelong process. As a matter of fact, it’s only at the end of Moses’ life that G‑d pronounced him as His humble servant. Even with the best of intentions, you will fall into habitual traps and get this wrong. Have the courage, however, to face yourself in the mirror, work on what needs repair, and for goodness sake, move your chair!

Questions to Ask:

  • What is my purpose? What is the outcome I’m seeking?
  • Who do I want to be right now?
  • What could be the best way to serve this moment?
  • Do I need to stretch into the space of action, even if I am afraid I am deficient?
  • Is it best to give someone else or the situation some space?
  • Should I be proactive and bring mountain energy?
  • Should I tap into that desert calm, and let things be as they are or unfold as they are meant to?