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Haughty or humble?

Finding confidence without self-consciousness.

A model of the Second Temple at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Credit: Ariely via Wikimedia Commons.
A model of the Second Temple at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Credit: Ariely via Wikimedia Commons.
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman
Rabbi Yossy Goldman is Life Rabbi Emeritus of Sydenham Shul in Johannesburg and president of the South African Rabbinical Association. He is the author of From Where I Stand, on the weekly Torah readings, available from and Amazon.

They say humility is one of those things you can’t brag about having.

Nonetheless, there is an old Jewish joke about a rabbi who dozed off over his Talmudic tomes. Some of his congregants walked in and began whispering praises of their spiritual leader. One commented on their rabbi’s formidable intellect, sagacity and knowledge. Another praised the rabbi for his kindness and compassion in helping many of the disadvantaged townspeople. A third raved about his organizational talents and how much he had done for the synagogue infrastructure. The rabbi then lifted his head, opened one eye and said, “And about my humility, you say nothing?”

Humility is an admirable character trait, but too much of it can leave a person timid, tentative and petrified to act. Too much self-esteem is arrogance. But too little leaves one feeling inadequate and inferior. Undoubtedly, one needs confidence to succeed in life. Overconfidence, however, can sabotage our chances. Finding the correct balance takes wisdom and sensitivity. 

At the beginning of Tzav, this week’s parshah, we read about the Cohanim, members of the priestly tribe, who had various jobs and duties in the Temple of old. In the Sanctuary, the very first order of the day was cleaning the ashes from the Altar. Animal parts and fats burned all night and much ash accumulated. This needed to be cleaned and removed. It was then placed near the ramp leading to the Altar. In order not to soil his sacred garments, the Cohen would change his clothes and only then remove the ash from the Sanctuary and take it outside the camp.

The commentaries explain the need for a change of clothing as follows: “It is unseemly to wear the same clothing while working in the kitchen as when serving wine to the master of the house at the dining room table.”

What is fascinating is that the same Cohen who had the privilege of performing the very first service of the day by cleaning the Altar of ash also had the more dubious duty of taking it outside the camp. One minute he is wearing the sacred vestments of the priesthood and the next he’s wearing overalls. It’s as if the president himself were taking out the garbage.

This reminds us that to serve God in the Sanctuary was an extraordinary privilege. And when serving the Almighty, nothing is too menial or inappropriate.

Having the honor of starting the day’s services by shoveling ash off the altar should never make us arrogant to the extent that we would consider it unbecoming to dump the ashes outside the camp. We should be proud to serve God in every possible way. Sometimes, it will be a big, important act, and at other times a small, seemingly insignificant deed. But when we are in the service of the Infinite One, nothing is trivial and nothing is unimportant. Whatever we can do in His service is an honor and a privilege.

This returns us to the fine balancing act between humility and self-esteem. Humility should never be confused with timidity. One can be confident and still humble. I’ve written elsewhere about how truly great people are truly humble. One can be super successful without becoming an obnoxious and insufferable egomaniac.

I am reminded of the well-known teaching of Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa (1765-1827), one of the great Polish Chassidic teachers of yesteryear: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket and there find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created’ (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5). But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27).”

The Torah was given on Mount Sinai, a small mountain. I have never heard of any famous adventurers going off to climb Mount Sinai. It’s not quite in the league of Everest or even Kilimanjaro. The rabbis teach that the reason for this is because to absorb the study of Torah one requires humility, and so it was given on a small mountain. But why then was it given on a mountain at all? It should have been given in a valley, which would surely be more symbolic of humility than a mountain. The answer is that while we do need to be humble, we must also be proud and strong enough to stand by our principles even when that may be unpopular. Hence, the combination of a small mountain: humble but still standing tall.

As Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch once said, “Just as a person ought to know his own shortcomings, he must also know the positive qualities that he possesses.”

Don’t sell yourself short, but don’t let success go to your head. 

Yes, you are unique; just like everyone else.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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