Behaalosecha-Likkutei Sichos-What is True Humility?

This Sicha is an excerpt from our Sefer

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Parshas Behaalosecha

What is true humility?

 (Likkutei Sichos Vol. 13 p. 30 and 38 p. 40)

The conclusion of Parshas Behaalosecha discusses the episode of Lashon Hara spoken against Moshe by Miriam and Ahron. Miriam and her brother Ahron spoke amongst themselves regarding Moshe’s estrangement from his wife and concluded that the reason given by Moshe, that he needs to be separated from his wife being that he speaks to Hashem, is unjustifiable, as they too have prophecy and speak with Hashem, and nonetheless remain married to their spouses. The verse then concludes how Moshe was humbler than any man on the face of the earth. This conclusion is coming to explain that Moshe felt humbled in the face of his sister and brother and hence did not feel offended by their words, and would not respond to the attack.[1] While many praises can be said about Moshe, such as him being the greatest Torah scholar, the closest person to Hashem, the greatest prophet, and so on and so forth, how was Moshe the humblest person on the face of the earth? How can one be humbler than any other person if he is the leader of the people, the closest man to G-d, which holds a great position of honor and respect? Don’t self-achievements bring a person to a feeling of elevation over others who have not achieved such matters? In this talk the Rebbe dissects the meaning of the trait of humility, how it is achieved and what it represents. Naturally, we all expect and demand respect, and when one feels disrespected, it offends him. All people have some sense of ego that prevent them from feeling lower than other people, perhaps even if these people have accomplished greater physical or spiritual achievements than him. It goes without saying, that one who holds a certain position of power, feels higher than those who are under him, and hence how is it possible for one to be humble and actually feel lower than them, to the point he does not get hurt by them when disrespected?      


Explorations of the Sicha:

1. What is true humility? Is humility a feeling of inferiority? Does humility deny recognition of virtues?

2. How was Moshe the humblest person on the face of the earth if he had so many matters in which he was elevated from the rest of the people?

3. How could Rav Yosef brag about him being the humblest person in the world?


1. The humility of Moshe Rabbeinu:

The verse[2] states “And the man Moshe was humbler than any man on the face of the earth.” How did Moshe achieve this humility and how was it even physically possible, knowing his great stature? Moshe Rabbeinu received the Torah on Sinai, and personally learned with Hashem for 40 days and 40 nights, and the Luchos were given to him as a present. Prior to this, Moshe had taken the Jewish people out of Egypt, and was promised to be the trusted leader of the Jewish people forever. Furthermore, in this Parsha alone we learned of Moshe’s great level of prophecy, and that he was able to meet with Hashem whenever he desired. The relation between Moshe and the people was like a mother to a nursing child. How then was it possible for him to be humbler than any other man? Before addressing this question, we must first introduce a further question on the essence of humility.

2. The humility of Rav Yosef:

The Mishneh[3] states that after Rebbe passed away, the attribute of humility became nullified. Rav Yosef however disagreed and stated that the attribute of humility has not become nullified, as he, Rav Yosef, is still alive, and he is humble. This statement of Rav Yosef is most troubling, as boasting about one’s humility is the antitheses of humility. To understand this, we must first explore the meaning of humility, and the difference between true and false humility.

3. The four types of Humility:

There are four types of humility:

  1. False humility
  2. External imaginative humility
  3. True humility that is intellectually motivated
  4. Humility of the essence

4. First type of Humility: False Humility-Having an inferiority complex:[4]

People falsely interpret humility as lowliness, and think it is achieved through one denying his accomplishments and good qualities that he has and recognizing one’s negative traits. It is falsely interpreted that to be humble one cannot recognize anything good about himself and rather must contemplate his negative traits, or terrible deeds, in order for him to feel humble before others. For example, if one feels haughtiness over another person, or group of people, due to his scholarliness, righteousness or accomplishments, then if he contemplates his sins and lacking’s, it will bring him to a state of realization that he in truth may be even lower than them. Furthermore, if he feels arrogant due to his beautiful looks, or intelligence, then he is to tell himself that in truth he is not beautiful or smart and he will then be able to feel humble. A typical example of expression of this type of humility is when one is offered a compliment of some achievement they did, or of their beauty and character, and one feels humbled by the compliment and responds by downgrading their achievement, or physical or spiritual beauty that was praised. While doing the above may help one feel humble, this is not true humility. This type of humility denies recognition of true qualities one may have, teaches people to feel inferior, and even more so, can eventually become the leading cause of arrogance. This form of humility is only possible to accomplish if one truly has bad traits or bad deeds and has a way of fooling himself to feel that he truly does not have the good qualities that he is praised for or sees in himself. If, however, one has no bad traits or sins, or is blinded to seeing them, and he has tremendous accomplishments that cannot be denied, then according to this philosophical definition of humility, he has every right to be arrogant, as he is truly better and greater than other people who don’t have such accomplishments and have bad traits. Furthermore, even the person who has the bad traits with which he can justify his humbleness, this will only help him in feeling humble in relation to those who are truly greater than him, while those who are even lower than him, he will feel arrogant in comparison to them. Is this true humility? Can humility only exist by a person who truly has aspects that make him inferior to others, or can it exist even by a person who is truly greater than others? This is the difference between true and false humility; true humility applies to all people of all levels of society, while false humility only applies to one who truly feels that he is of lower class. In essence, this is not called humility, but a delusional inferiority complex. How, however, does one accomplish true humility if in truth he has what to brag about and has acquired bragging rights through his achievements, accomplishments, and position of power?

False humility prevents one from placing efforts in areas that he is skilled in:

One of the great setbacks of false humility is that when one denies his qualities, he abstains from placing effort in those areas. It is possible for the world to truly benefit from his qualities and if he is humble in a way that even he does not recognize his qualities, he will never be able to reach his full potential.


Second type of Humility: A publicly humble individual who is inherently arrogant:

Aside for the above false humility, there exists a second false humility, which in truth is arrogance in disguise. This refers to one who has humility only when dealing with others. Meaning, that his emotions and thoughts are personally arrogant, and he truly believes that he is better or greater than others, however, due to his desire to also have the virtue of humility, he chooses to always externally show himself as a humble person in front of others. This is not humility at all, but rather a tool to conceal his arrogance, and actually strengthens his arrogance, as now he feels that he has also acquired the trait of humility. This matter can be emphasized in the following parable and story.

A Parable: 

A respected Rosh Yeshiva once walked into a Beis Midrash full of students learning, and everyone stood up for him, in his honor, as is the ruling in Shulchan Aruch. He felt so humbled by the respect he was shown, and felt truly unbefitting of the honor, that it pained him like a knife in the heart. He quickly and sheepishly made his way to his seat and asked everyone to be seated. He had spoken many times to the Yeshiva students about the attribute of humility, and it was hence most befitting that he be a living example and feel humbled and unworthy when shown honor. Sometime later, he was invited to speak at an event in a foreign town and when he walked into the Beis Midrash, no one stood on his behalf. The Rosh Yeshiva felt slighted by the disrespect and spoke afterwards to the Rav of the congregation. That evening, the Rosh Yeshiva began honestly thinking about that day’s events and came to following realization: Although he felt unworthy when people stood up for him in the previous Beis Midrash, and it was like a knife in his heart, this time when they did not stand up for him, it felt like two knives in his heart. If he was truly humble, why then did he feel pain by not being respected, and why did he feel contradictory feelings in the way he was treated in the two Beis Midrash? The answer is that he had never acquired true humility, as his humility was merely external, limited to the way he acted in public, as it is unrighteous to act arrogantly and demand respect in front of others. However, deep down he did not feel humble, but rather felt higher and greater than others and hence felt deserving of their respect, and the lack of their respect greatly pained him. The Rosh Yeshiva now understood the meaning of true humility, to honestly believe that you are not greater than others, and hence have no expectations to be treated with extra respect by them.  


A story:[5]

Reb Mordechai Bayever [Horidoker], a Chassid of the Baal Shem Tov, once recalled his false humility, prior to receiving influence of the Baal Shem Tov and his teachings. Rav Mordechai was a great Gaon in both Nigleh and Nistar, although, in those days, appeared to the public as a simpleton who worked as a construction worker. He believed his spiritual attributes to be on the highest level and imagined himself to be the foremost Torah scholar and tzaddik of that generation. He was also gratified that no one else was aware of this, thus enabling him to fulfill the Mitzvah of being humble. In his village, he was known as “Reb Mordechai the House Painter.” He even concealed this fact from his own wife. One particular shabbos, the shabbos of Parshah Behaalosecha, they called him up to the Torah reading. The Aliyah for which Reb Mordechai was called up was the seventh portion. When the reader pronounced the verse, “And the man called Moshe was exceedingly humble,” the notion came into Reb Mordechai’s head that Moshe Rabbeinu’s humility was indeed awesomely great; but not so great as his own, as he, Reb Mordechai, was even humbler. Rav Mordechai felt that in this aliyah he had detected a Divine message, informing him that it was he who was the real master of humility. Moshe Rabbeinu was indeed a great master of humility; but after all, wasn’t the entire Jewish nation aware of his greatness? In contrast, Reb Mordechai knew how great a Torah scholar, tzaddik and kabbalist he himself was; but not only didn’t he tell anyone, he actually took pains to conceal his greatness from others. Reb Mordechai now recalled what an idiot he had been in those days. Even now, Reb Mordechai felt shame whenever he recalled all his idiotic and outrageous notions of long ago. He praised G-d for the privilege of having seen the Rebbe the Baal Shem Tov and having elevated himself to the true path of avodah.


A wager between Rav Pinchas of Shkolv and his father Rav Chanoch Henoch Shick:

Rav Pinchas of Shklov was one of the foremost great Chassidim of the Alter Rebbe and was the son of the Chief Rabbi of Shklov, Rav Chanoch Henoch Shick, who was considered one of the greatest Torah giants in his generation. Rav Henoch Shick was no friend of the Chassidim and did not enjoy the fact his son became a Chassid, to say the least. Nonetheless, he agreed to have a dialogue with his son, and try to impress on him that the Chassidism truly had nothing more to offer in Avodas Hashem than traditional Judaism. To prove this matter, Pinchas and his father made a wager regarding the attribute of humility versus arrogance, and patience versus anger. The Chassidim were known for their humility and emphasis on dispelling anger and arrogance, and Rav Pinchas claimed that his father did not truly master these traits. Rav Henoch Shick was meant to work on his attribute of humility and patience through the traditional methods in Judaism, and his son Pinchas would put him to the test to see if he accomplished this trait. After several months that Rav Henoch Shick worked on his patience and humility, Rav Pinchas his son offered his set wagon driver some payment in exchange for refusing to take his father anywhere he asked for the next several days, without supplying any justifiable reason. Rav Chanoch Henoch Shick was dependent on his wagon driver for various parts of his daily schedule, and having his wagon driver suddenly temporarily refuse to take him would prove quite difficult on him. When Rav Chanoch Henoch Shick entered the wagon that day, his driver told him that he will not be taking him anywhere. The Rav asked him why, and he refused to respond and simply told him that that is his decision. The Rav was already late for a function and was quite upset about what his wagon driver was doing to him, although thanks to him working on himself for the past several months, he was able to keep his cool and simply left the wagon. After several days Rav Pinchas approached his father and revealed to him that he had put him to the test of their wager, using the wagon driver. Rav Henoch immediately replied that if that is the case, then he won the wager, as he did not get upset or shout or fire the wagon driver for his insolence. Rav Pinchas then asked him, if in his heart he had felt upset at the wagon driver, and Rav Henoch replied that he did and he even felt like firing him at that very instant for such insolence towards the Rav of the town, although he kept his cool. Rav Pinchas concluded to his father that a Chassid does not feel upset even in his heart, and that is true humility.


The humility of Rav Elimelech of Lizensk:[6]

The Alter Rebbe once visited a Rav of the Misnagedim and noticed that the Sefer Noam Elimelech, of Reb Elimelech of Lizensk, was on the floor. He asked the Rav how he can treat the Sefer with such disgrace and the Rav replied that he did not have reason to show him respect, as he did not know of any virtue of the author. The Alter Rebbe replied that he is of such virtue, that even if you would place the author on the floor, he would be quiet and would not feel any hurt towards you.

5. Third type of Humility: True humility and how it is accomplished:[7]

True humility is that a person feels, not that he is inferior to others and has bad habits and sins, but that despite his undeniable virtues and despite his accomplishments which surpass that of others, he nevertheless does not feel haughty or greater than them. This is achieved by one telling himself that all of his virtues and accomplishments are not of his own doings but were granted to him with G-d’s favor. If G-d had given these similar powers and strengths to another person, then perhaps he too would reach similar heights of virtues and accomplishments and hence he has no right to brag over the other. It is not him who deserves the credit for his accomplishments. Furthermore, perhaps he should even feel lower than the others, as perhaps if they would have received the above traits and virtues, they would have used it to accomplish far more and greater than he has done, and hence if one measures based on effort, they are greater than him. This was the humility of Moshe Rabbeinu, that despite knowing full well of his greatness in all aspects, he did not hold any credit for himself, and on the contrary, actually believed that others would have done a better job than him if they were given those same qualities from Hashem. This philosophy of thinking made Moshe feel lower than other people and be patient and humble before them. This form of humility applies to people of all levels of society, power, intelligence, and accomplishments, as they are not asked to deny their virtues but simply realize that they cannot take the credit for themselves and use it as a reason to feel greater than another. On the contrary, they should feel humble in face of others as perhaps the others are reaching more of their full potential than he is. 

6. How Rav Yosef could brag about his humility:

Rav Yosef stated that in truth the attribute of humility did not become abolished as he was still alive, and he is humble. According to the false perspective of humility, this statement sounds haughty and arrogant, and is the very antitheses of humility. However, according to the true definition of humility, there is nothing wrong with one recognizing his truly humble qualities so long as he does not take credit for them and use them to feel greater than others. Rav Yosef recognized the great quality of humility which Hashem granted him, to the point that it would be false to state that the attribute of humility has become abolished. However, this did not make him feel haughty at all, and on the contrary, his great trait of humility was expressed in him feeling that others would have become even more humble if they were given his trait.   

7. Fourth type of Humility: Moshe’s humility was essential and not just due to a philosophical approach:

While Moshe certainly possessed the true form of humility described above, his humility went a lot further and was an essential feeling of humbleness that was part of the makeup of his soul. The above philosophy, of one feeling humble before others due to that possibly they would have accomplished more if they were granted one’s powers, is an intellectually stimulated form of humility which could be negated if it were to be proven that one truly excelled in his efforts and did more than others would have done in his position. An essential humility, however, is an innate feeling of the soul that does not need explanation or reason, and is a natural feeling of humbleness towards others. This was the form of humility contained within Moshe, and on this the Torah testified that Moshe was the humblest person on the face of the earth, as even if it were to be proven that he is truly greater than others both in qualities and efforts, nonetheless, he would still feel humble. This was accomplished because Moshe Rabbeinu was Bittul Bemetzius, completely self-nullified, as his soul came from a very high root before Hashem.

8. Reaching humility through Bittul Hayeish:[8]

Although our souls are not from the level of Moshe, and we cannot achieve his level of essential humility, nonetheless, it is possible to gain some level of natural humility, in contrast to the intellectually stimulated humility spoken above. This is through one working on his ego, or Yeishus, and diminishing his pride and self-respect. There are various methods available in which a person can work on his ego, and once done, it gives him a more natural sense of humility towards others.    

Humility-The road to compromise and making peace:

From a letter of the Rebbe:[9] Whenever there are two parties in argument over a matter in this physical world, it is nearly impossible for one party to be completely correct, and the other party to be completely at fault. Every party has at least some wrongdoing that needs amending. In fact, as explained in Chassidus, it is this wrongdoing that may have triggered the wrongdoing of the other, perhaps to even a greater quantity and quality, as the verse states that just as water reflects one’s image so too the heart of man reflects another’s heart. Many good endeavors have become sabotaged due to conflict and discord that is motivated by a desire of imaginative respect, and is at times embellished with claims of fear of heaven and matters of piety [Shpitz Chabad]. Some people, after hearing the above words, rather than make an accounting of their own soul and situation, repenting for their ways and judging the other person favorably to the point he feels humbled before him, they rather demand the above from the other party. They use this to enthusiastically preach to the other party that they should do Teshuvah, and with no less enthusiasm, they judge themselves favorably, with great scrupulousness, and demand of others that they be humble before him. 


Lessons of the Sicha:

· Humility does not mean that one should deny good traits that he has, or good accomplishments. It is important for one to be able to recognize his good traits and what he has accomplished. One does not have to feel, or be, inferior in order to be humble.

· Knowing one’s virtues does not contradict one’s ability to feel humbled in face of others who have not reached such achievements, or acquired such traits, as one is to contemplate that his achievements and qualities were granted to him with G-d’s favor and are of no doing of his own. Perhaps if another individual had his traits they would accomplish far more than he.

· Humility helps one navigate properly in relationships so he can focus on his wrongdoings and necessity of making amends rather than always pointing the finger at others.   


[1] See Ramban ibid

[2] Behaalosecha 12:3

[3] Sotah 49a

[4] Based on Toras Chaim Shemos 120b; Biurei Hazohar of Admur Haemtzai in end of Pikudei; Tzemach Tzedek p. 309; Sefer Mamarim 5665:219; 5679 p. 91; Sefer Hamamrim 5710 p. 236; brought in Likkutei Sichos ibid

[5] Taken from a letter of the Rebbe Rayatz, written to his daughter Chayeh Mushka, printed in the Sefer “The Making of Chassidim” [SIE]

[6] See Beis Rebbe 63a

[7] Based on Sefer Hamamrim 1950 p. 236, brought in Likkutei Sichos ibid

[8] See Toras Chaim Parshas Vaeira 83a

[9] Igros Kodesh 13:19

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