The yomim noraim is a good time to work on our Midos, and what better midah is there to work on than the midah of humility?
“We finished Mussaf at 2.”
“Well, we finished Mussaf at 3!”
“We finished Mussaf at 11 a.m.!”
“Oh, I forgot to mention… We davened vasikin!”
So maybe there are better times to work on it. Such as Pesach.
“We finished the Seder at 2!”
And that said, there’s no better person to teach you about humility than me. Than I? I’m never sure.
Traditionally, we always know that we can learn about humility from our great leaders, such as Donald Trump. We can learn a great deal about ga’avah from him, such as when he said… Let me find the quote…
“The beauty of me is that I’m very rich.”
No, wait. Not that one.
“I have the world’s greatest memory!”
“Sorry, losers and haters, but my I.Q. is one of the highest – and you all know it!”
Oh, ok, here it is:
“No one reads the bible more than me.”
No, that can’t be right.
Oh, here, I found it:
“I think I am actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.”
I think we’ve learned a lot from this.
The issue with humility is that it’s one of the most misunderstood midos. For one thing, it doesn’t actually mean that you shouldn’t sell yourself. For example, years ago, I went on a bunch of job interviews that went nowhere, and I’m pretty sure it was at least partially because I was trying to be humble. Maybe it was the training, or maybe it was because I figured that employers were looking for someone who was humble, so that if I did something well, we could share a lot of the credit.
But I didn’t get any of those jobs, so clearly they didn’t see it that way. They saw it as me not being good at the things they were looking for. No one was reading between the lines and saying, “Boy, he must actually be good at these things and also humble!” They just said, “Boy, this guy isn’t really great at anything.” I was being too smart for these people.
And I don’t even want to tell you what happened when they asked what I consider my greatest weakness. Looking back, I should have said humility. Or overthinking.
And even nowadays I have this problem. I teach high school, using a curriculum that I’ve mostly cobbled together myself, and at some point, someone was thinking of buying that curriculum. But one of the questions he asked was, “Do you find that your students improve over the course of your teaching them?” And I said, “I don’t know. Yes, my 11th graders write better than my 9th graders, but I’m not sure if it’s because of me or because of the two extra years of life experience. I have no way of knowing.”
Now to be honest, that’s true. But by that logic, no one ever knows if they made a difference in anything. In fact, the entire school system might not help at all. It might just be that 20-year-olds are naturally more knowledgeable than 5-year-olds.
School does teach humility, on some level. It’s hard to teach humility as a parent, because ever since your child was a toddler, you’ve been saying, “Wow! You’re such a big boy!” and “You’re the cutest kid ever!” And then the kid gets to school, and no one in his class thinks he’s the cutest kid ever. They thought they were the cutest kid ever.
But I think I had a fundamental misunderstanding of what humility was. And I blamed Dr. Midos – a character in a series of children’s tapes from my childhood who was spying on people way before the NSA was, except that when the NSA sees people about to engage in wrongful activities, they don’t play songs and hope the people are inspired to turn it around.
Anyway, according to one of his songs, “The Torah says be humble in everything you do; if you’re strong or smart or beautiful, it’s not because of you.”
Everything you do? Including job interviews? That’s rich, coming from someone who seems to be self-employed. Why would he send a yeshiva bochur up to space with a jar of pickles? What happens when the pickle juice floats out of the jar? Is it going to keep getting in Dizzy’s eyes, or what? Why would he send a kid up to space whose name is Dizzy? Where did this guy get his PhD? What is he a doctor of? Midos? Was his last name actually Midos, or did he call himself that because he was really good at midos? How humble is that? Wait - did he name the Marvelous Midos Machine after himself?
But my lack of knowledge is probably not his fault. I think I was doing it wrong. Humility is not about not wanting to brag if you’re not sure you’re good at something. That’s just honesty. And low self-esteem. I mean, if that’s how it worked, then how is advertising a thing?
“Buy our product! It’s the best!”
It would be more like, “Buy our product! It’s comparable to all the other products out there! But it’s nothing special!”
And what about political campaigns? Those feel like bragging.
“As a state senator, I passed all these great laws.”
Wow, good for you. I’ve never passed any great laws, but maybe if I was a state senator. I’m just a teacher, and I have to tell you: My laws are not well received.
So it’s not advertising; it’s bragging. And in fact, we’re taught that Shaul became king because he was humble and wasn’t actually trying to become king. Imagine political campaigns doing that:
“Vote for Trump. He doesn’t actually want to be president. He just wants to see how far this can go if he says random things.”
So what even is humility? It sounds like a cologne. (“Humility: For when you want to smell okay, but not better than anyone else.”)
It’s not about saying, “I’m nothing,” I’ll tell you that. By that logic, the greatest people you know of are the ones who most think they’re nothing. In fact, if you believe you’re nothing, you should really become something. Was your goal in life to become nothing? People asked you when you were a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
And even if you say, “I don’t believe I’m nothing, but I’m going to tell people I’m nothing, because that’s what anivus is,” that’s not right either, because if you’re a doctor, for example, you should say you’re a doctor. You know, in case someone needs a doctor. Not telling people what you can do that they can’t is selfish.
And everyone’s goal is to be something. Look at the biggest gedolei Torah that you know. How many of them are nothing? None. How many believe they’re nothing? If they did, they would tell people to stop bothering them with shaylos. Don’t you think they’re too smart to think they’re nothing if they’re really not? You figured out that they weren’t nothing, and you’re you. Who are you? Nothing. So then what are anavim?
No, different spelling.
Yes, on one level it means you shouldn’t brag. Bragging is annoying, and people brag about the stupidest things:
- People brag about how little sleep they’re getting. Wow, you’re so impressed! Those same people fall asleep whenever they have to sit still for more than two minutes.
- People brag about how much hot sauce they can handle. “That’s not spicy! I’ve had worse.” This is a talent that will help them in life.
- People brag about how they don’t need to wear a coat when it’s cold. That helps nobody. And they don’t even necessarily say it out loud. They just stand outside when it’s cold to conspicuously not wear a coat. And they picture people falling over in admiration.
- People love dropping yichus. “I know that guy. He davens in my shul.”
“You have a shul?”
“No, the shul that I daven in.”
“Well that’s less impressive. I thought I could at least brag to others about how I know someone who has a shul.”
But it’s not just about not bragging. It’s about internalizing the humility, but also not feeling like you’re nothing. For example, admitting when you don’t know the answer to something.
So how do you improve your humility? I don’t know the answer to that.
But okay, here are some tips to becoming humble. That way, people can look at you and say, “Look at that guy! He’s so humble, it’s crazy!”
- Humility is not about thinking you’re nothing; it’s realizing that everything you have is a gift from Hashem, some assembly required. And you didn’t get Him anything.
- Remember that you personally are only human. And in your experience, most humans are idiots. Hence, you are an idiot.
- Realize that everyone has a strength that someone else does not have. For example, your rav is more knowledgeable than you, but you’re probably way better at video games.
- If you brag but precede it with the statement “not to brag,” it’s not bragging. You just said so.
- Always thank people and compliment them to show that they have value too. It’s not just you.
- Don’t look at the byline under this column. That’s full-on bragging. But I do it for business, so that’s okay.
Anyway, thank you for reading this column. You have a lovely home.