Shoftim: Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
“Humility is Not Humiliation”
This week is the first week of Elul, the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. It is traditionally a time dedicated to introspection, to reviewing the year that was, and to beginning the spiritual process called Teshuvah. Teshuvah is a re-turning, a turning inward, an invitation to fearlessly examine the unhealthy and sometimes even harmful ways we show up in our lives. And, our sages tell us, we are to engage in this process with humility.
Humility is one of those words that is often misunderstood. We know its opposite to be arrogance or pride, and we associate it with the idea of meekness, submissiveness and self-abnegation. In our minds the word “humility” has become synonymous with “humiliation,” and we feel a profound aversion toward that. To make matters worse, we live in a society that rewards those with narcissistic charismatic personalities, and looks down upon or, at best, overlooks the unpretentious, the modest, the unassuming. But Mussar—Jewish teachings on ethical and spiritual discipline—offers a new definition for the word “humility” that opens a doorway to its deeper meaning. For the teachers of Mussar, real humility is not about self-abasement or servility—that would be a pathological expression of this midah/this quality—rather it is about strengthening a healthy sense of self. It is not about making yourself “less-than” what you are, but about being exactly and fully who you are. True humility is about constraining oneself to occupy only the space fitting to us, while leaving all the space necessary for others to do the same. “Space” here can be understood figuratively, but can also refer to the physical, interpersonal, and/or emotional space each of us inhabits.
The Torah sees this definition of humility as a paragon of behavior for all persons, but especially emphasizes that those in leadership positions live by it. We see this particularly in this week’s portion when Moses enjoins the people to choose a king to rule over them once they settle in the land. This king, Moses urges, must be humble:
…he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses… And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Torah… Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life… He will thus not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the instruction to the right or to the left… [Deut. 17:16-20]
In this month of Elul, we need humility to help us discern whether we, in our own life, have deviated right or left, overstepping our rightful space. Humility is the conduit through which we are able to take an honest inventory of our behavior and measure the ways we have either let our ego overflow its boundaries, or shrink in the face of life’s challenges. Do you make enough room in your life for others or do you find yourself mostly focused on your own story? Do you tend to take over other people’s space, or, alternatively deflate in their presence? Are you holding your ground for what you believe in, or find that you often shrink from the space you ought to claim? Humility helps one see oneself from an objective, measured, truthful perspective; and as such, the Mussar masters held that cultivating humility is the ground for the introspective journey called Teshuvah. May it guide our steps, this month, to find greater clarity about who we are, so that we might become more fully who, at the soul level, we know ourselves to be.