Humility while winning.
Have you ever heard a recipient of an award or compliment say they feel “humbled” by the accolade? Why is it that they associate humility with winning? If anything, not winning would show humility. When you win, you feel exalted, proud and excited. You feel like you are the best in the world. When you lose, the humility starts kicking in, “maybe I am not as awesome as I thought I was”. Is this whole proclamation a lie? Do they actually feel more humble after receiving newfound honour and distinction?
In this week’s parsha, Yitro, we read about two events that highlight the value of humility.
Yitro the father in law of Moshe, a Midianite Priest, arrives in the desert. Notwithstanding his leadership position, Moshe prostrated himself before his father in law. Some commentaries even posit that he served as waiter for the meals of his Father in Law. In spite of his preeminent authority as G-d’s prophet, Moshe saw fit to diminish his stature, getting down and dirty, a clear act of humility. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said
“A great man is always willing to be little”.
The second half of the parsha we read about the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. The first and only time in history G-d appears to an entire nation, giving the “Ten Commandments” and laying the foundation of Jewish observance for millennia to come.
The Midrash explains that G-d chose Mt. Sinai as the venue for the giving of the Torah since it was the smallest of all the mountains. Teaching us, in order to receive the Torah, we must be humble and small like Mt. Sinai.
With this traditional view of humility in mind you can’t help think the award winners who announce their “humility” are nothing more than fakers. However, I think a closer view of our parsha will turn the meaning around and show the beauty of their statement.
If giving the Torah on the smallest mountain were G-d showing us that the proper method of divine service is by treating yourself as insignificant, he would have chosen flat land and not a mountain at all. In truth, a better option would have been to give it in a valley.
If Moshe was trying to show his worthlessness he should have made Yitro the leader and give up his position altogether. Moshe understood his job and the high esteem he has because of it. Moshe understood that he was the best person for the job and that didn’t make him any less humble! Indeed, it was specifically because of this knowledge that the Torah, would call him “the humblest of all time”. Clearly humility is not self-abasement.
Those lucky few who work hard and see their perseverance pay off in the form of an award should not think accepting it, a matter of ego.
They deserve it!
Moshe knew his place and was proud of it. Moshe also knew the back-story to his success, he knew all the help he got along the way. He also knew that anybody else in his situation might have done an even better job than he did. When people acknowledge your success you don’t need to be shy about it but it should still make you humble, and that’s not a contradiction.
That is the reason why G-d chose a mountain to give the Torah on. A mountain, a natural elevation of the earth’s surface symbolizes the natural elevation we all should have. True humility is having a healthy self-esteem while realizing that there is so much more to it than you. Realizing that our success is a combination of our talents, hard work, determination and the understanding of our purpose!