By uttering this sentence, I have brought myself into a paradox: if I take pride, then how am I humble; and if I am humble, then how can I take pride in it?
The Gemara at the end of Masechet Sota (49b) says, “When Rebbi [Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi] died, humility became non-extant.” The Gemara comments on this statement by recording that Rav Yosef instructed a student not to teach this passage, “For there is me” – meaning, I, Rav Yosef, am indeed humble.
Doesn’t Rav Yosef here go against the stigmas associated with humility? A humble person is not somebody who goes around with a shirt with a picture of himself smiling printed on it, with the declaration underneath it, “I am humble”!
If we would conduct a survey and ask people who is humble, they would undoubtedly answer that a humble person is someone who is somewhat of a “nebach,” or a “shlemazel,” a person who talks in a low voice with his head lowered, his eyes gazing down on the ground, who does not look into the eyes of the person speaking to him, etc.
In our parasha, the Torah says about Moshe, “The man Moshe was very humble more humble than any person.” Should we imagine that Moshe was this type of pitiful figure, who demeaned himself in the presence of all people, or should we picture him as a strong, confident person, a leader, wiser than all other men, the one who walked first ahead of everyone else – as he is depicted in caricatures and Disney films?
I heard from my esteemed teacher, Rav Shabtai Rappaport shlit”a (Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Shevut Yisrael, Efrat), a description of Moshe Rabbenu’s humble quality.
When Hashem chooses Moshe Rabbenu to serve as leader of Benei Yisrael. The Midrash Rabbah (Parashat Shemot) tells that as Moshe shepherded the animals of his father-in-law, Yitro, a young goat ran away from the flock. Moshe ran after the kid until he came to a pool of water, where the kid stopped to drink. When Moshe approached it, he realized that he had not known that the kid had escaped because it was thirsty. “You are obviously very tired,” he said to the kid. He lifted it onto his shoulder and carried it back. The Almighty then said, “You have such compassion in leading the sheep of humans – by your life, you will shepherd My sheep, Israel.”
Moshe chases after a single goat that ran away. He could have easily said to himself, “Look, I am the son of a princess; it is beneath my dignity to chase after a single kid. After all, Yitro has dozens of sheep and goats; why should I chase after a single kid that ran away? Enough already – let it run away!”
From here, we can learn who is arrogant and who is humble. The arrogant person doesn’t want to deal with it; he does not take upon himself responsibility for small matters. He affords himself a higher stature and refuses to lower himself to deal with small details and trivialities. A person accepts responsibility only if he will succeed – and this is precisely what the humble person thinks: with just a little bit of effort anything can be achieved. For the humble person doesn’t run away from responsibility, but does run away from honour and distinction.
The arrogant person pursues honour and distinction, and runs away from responsibility.
Regarding the quality of humility, the Rambam (Hilchot Dei’ot 3:3) writes, when it comes to all attributes, one should follow the middle line, with the exception of humility, regarding which one must go to the extreme. Why? Because arrogance encompasses all the negative qualities, whereas humility encompasses all the positive qualities. Arrogance encompasses everything that distances one from Hashem, while humility encompasses everything that brings one closer to Hashem.