We take for granted that humility is an admirable virtue, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what humility is and also what it is not.
Humility is commonly understood to mean a low estimate of oneself and one’s accomplishments. The Oxford English Dictionary defines humility as “the quality of being humble: having a low estimate of one’s importance, worthiness, or merits.”
But this doesn’t ring true with what Judaism teaches us about the value of humility.
The Midrash famously teaches that Mount Sinai was only a little mountain to show how instrumental humility is.
But suppose the educational purpose of giving the Torah in such a place is to illustrate the value of humility. In that case, you’d assume a valley would be a more appropriate geological feature to teach the lesson!
So why give the Torah on a mountain at all?
The Shem Mi’Shmuel states that to accept the Torah and live its ideals, you must be like a mountain, not a valley; or as Pirkei Avos puts it, if I don’t stand up for myself, what am I?
As important as the quality of humility is, people who accept the Torah upon themselves must consider themselves important and deserving of the Torah.
R’ Jonathan Sacks teaches that humility is an appreciation of our talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought but the dedication of oneself to something higher.
R’ Shlomo Farhi notes that the Torah labels Moshe as the most humble of all men. If humility is simply a low view of oneself, then Moshe, the Lawgiver and single most significant authority on the Torah, would meekly cave to any challenge – which he obviously couldn’t and didn’t. But if humility is about being of service, then Moshe truly was the most humble of all men – Moshe singularly dedicated his entire life to public service. His achievements were never about him or his status; they were all in furtherance of rescuing and building the Jewish people.
It was no lack of humility for Moshe to acknowledge his authority and leadership. When a person believes they are nothing, the Torah itself will ultimately have little effect in elevating him. Although pride is a dangerous vice in large quantities, a small amount is still essential to living a good life.
Pride is about competing – that you are more intelligent than or richer than others; humility is about serving. Humility isn’t the opposite of narcissism and hubris; it’s the lack of them. In the absence of pride, you find humility, which sees no need for competition.
So perhaps humility is not that you are nothing; it’s just that it’s not about you anymore. In humility, you are no more and no less than other people. Humility is not about hiding away, becoming a wallflower or a doormat; it is about the realization that your abilities and actions are uncorrelated to others.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.