Through a Mussar Lens: Humility, the Primary Public Virtue
The world seems to have taken a sharp turn toward being a harder, colder and less caring place. Virtues and strengths of character that the Jewish tradition has held out as ideals for millennia are under attack in the public square. Truth, compassion, humility, lovingkindness and generosity are being run roughshod by lies, hatred, arrogance and self-interest.
From my perspective, there is only one thing to do, and that is to stay the course. We must continue to be pursuers of virtue. My words sound to me like what a mutual fund manager says to clients when the market is in turmoil. The best investment strategy is to set long-range goals from which you do not deviate just because the market has hit a patch of rough weather. If that is the best investment strategy for money, how much more so is it the right approach when we are talking about the qualities of our very souls?
When leaders and their minions tell blatant lies, we owe it to ourselves to be the standard-bearers of truth. When ego is flaunted, our own spiritual lives require that we be champions of humility. When hatred is normalized and whole nationalities demonized, then if for no other reason than for the sake of our own souls, we must step up in their defense.
The great temptation of the moment is to let our emotions rule, which is the equivalent of selling our stocks in a moment of panic. In this case, that would mean allowing ourselves to get provoked into mimicking the debased thought, words and deeds that are currently polluting public discourse. As Jews, we have paid a high price for the virtues that are so central to our identity, our tradition, our mission and our selves. This is a moment of test when we need to be strong and vigilant, to ensure that we do not look back and realize that we bought high and sold low.
With that goal in mind, our Yashar newsletter throughout 2017 will focus on a set of character strengths that the Mussar tradition says a person who aspires to be whole requires, which are also the very traits that we see being demeaned by some leaders and their followers.
As is almost always the case when we bring a Mussar lens to bear, we have to start with humility as the personal and public virtue that precedes all others.
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Yogi Berra was bemoaning the weather when he said, “It ain’t the heat; it’s the humility.” But his slip of the tongue provides an accurate description of our current situation. There is so much heat in public conversation and it is still escalating. But the core issue is not the heated words; it is the lack of humility we are experiencing in some of our leaders.
The Torah gives us an amazing model for leadership by naming Moses as “the most humble person on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). Moses who stood up to the Pharaoh, who called down plagues on his oppressors, who put down rebellions and fought wars, who led a slave nation to freedom, was humble. The same idea is carried through to the Jewish king, who was required to write a copy of the Torah and to read from it all the days of his life, “that his heart be not lifted above his brethren” (Deuteronomy 17:20).
And, in parallel, the Torah gives us the archetype of the arrogant ruler in the Pharaoh, who saw himself as being so far above others that he proclaimed himself the intermediary between the gods and man, and who would himself become divine after death.
About the Jewish king, Maimonides says (Hilchot Melachim 2:6): He “should bear the nation's difficulties, burdens, complaints and anger as a nurse carries an infant.” The contrast to the Pharaoh could not be starker because, as we know, the Egyptian ruler hard-heartedly enslaved and exploited people.
We can take some comfort in the fact that the arrogant leader is always brought down to earth. We find that said in prophecy: “I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the tyrants” (Isaiah 13:11). The Bible also points to arrogance to explain the fall of kings: “But when [Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar’s] heart became arrogant and hardened with pride, he was deposed from his royal throne and stripped of his glory” (Daniel 5:20). It is also true that in our own lifetimes we have seen many arrogant rulers, few of whom have held onto power for very long. What is very unfortunate and disquieting, however, is all the suffering in the period of rule by the arrogant as well as when it crumbles to earth.
When we look deeply into the problem, we are forced to see that it does not start with the leaders themselves but only ends up there. The problem actually starts with the tolerance—even celebration—of egotism in the culture at large. The leader mirrors the people, and we are not a humble people.
In October of 2016 I attended an academic conference on the topic of humility (hosted at the Institute for the Study of Human Flourishing at the University of Oklahoma), where I met Pelin Kesebir, a psychologist whose work focuses on humility. Dr. Kesebir used Google Books to survey books published between 1901 and 2000, and her finding was that use of the words “humility” and “humbleness” had declined by 43.3% over the period. It should not be surprising, then, to see the rise of arrogant leaders, which is really just a reflection of the decline in the general regard for humility in the culture.
We should aspire to restoring humility to leadership, and we should be prepared to take steps to bring more humility into public life. The first step in that direction has to be restoring or cultivating humility in our own lives. Puffing up to confront the arrogant only brings more of the same into the world. What undoes the arrogant is the genuine humility of those who would confront them.
It is important to emphasize that humility as understood in Jewish tradition has nothing to do with meekness or diffidence. At the humility conference, whenever someone slipped into speaking about humility in terms of knowing one’s limitations and weaknesses, I would pipe up to add “and strengths.” In doing so I was following the lead of Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz (1873–1936), the famed Mussar supervisor of the Mir Yeshiva, who said, “Woe [oy] to the person who does not know their weaknesses. But double woe [oy vavoy] to the person who does not know their strengths.” The truly humble person knows the reality of how limited he or she is, but at the same time does not deny the gifts of capability he or she has been given.
As I have said and written many times, humility is a matter of occupying your rightful space, not more than is appropriate but also not less. The place to begin bringing more humility into public life is with the people around you—family, friends, neighbors, workers. To think you could do otherwise is actually a kind of arrogance as you would demand from others a standard that you yourself do not keep. But when we do become models of humility in our personal lives, that is actually a political act, because values are contagious. When we tolerate our own arrogance—or, at the other end of the spectrum, our own self-denigration—we contribute to making this an egotistical world, and we end up with arrogant leaders. When we are humble in the right measure in every corner of our lives, we align with the side that will win out in the end, and, in fact, hasten that victory.
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