Where I live in South Africa, everyone knows our national treasure continues to be the late Nelson Mandela. The status and respect he enjoys even after his death are legendary and fully merited. To have suffered imprisonment for 27 years and come out preaching peace and reconciliation is nothing less than awe-inspiring.
Mandela became president of South Africa and received every imaginable honor, including a well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize. But those who knew the man knew him to be possessed of genuine humility.
Many years ago, my family bumped into then-President Mandela while he happened to be going for a walk near our home. He took the time to stop and chat with our children, asking each of them about school and their favorite subject. Then he carried on walking the next two blocks while holding the hands of my son and daughter, just like a loving zayde. How many presidents or prime ministers would do that when they’re not running for election?
The beginning of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) features an interesting lesson in true humility.
The very first word, vayikra, features a smaller-than-usual “alef.” Tradition teaches that Moses had initially written the word without the alef at all, which changes its meaning. Vayikra means “and he called,” whereas without the alef it reads vayikar, “and he chanced upon.” This is how God communicated to the heathen prophet Balaam, rather than approaching him deliberately and lovingly as He did with Moses.
God, however, insisted that Moses write the word vayikra with an alef, so Moses had no choice. But Moses used a small alef that was almost indiscernible, reflecting his true humility. Despite his greatness, he remained the humblest of men.
Today, fame and recognition seem to be the keys to success. We have our fair share of self-appointed celebrities with millions of “followers.” More often than not, they have absolutely no claim to fame whatsoever, but they know how to market themselves. To become world-famous in the digital age, all you need is confidence, chutzpah and… a publicist.
But thankfully, we are beginning to hear some intelligent, divergent voices.
Author Malcolm Gladwell has much to say about the downfall of the overconfident. His examples range from upsets on the battlefield to meltdowns in big business. It’s refreshing to read that, according to Gladwell, “Being humble should be a qualification, not a disqualification, for picking a leader.”
Indeed, the contemporary successful CEO is more likely to be appreciated for his humility than respected for his hubris. He or she will be more communicative, lead by consensus and be a team player rather than a controlling unilateralist.
In Jewish tradition, humility was always considered one of the most exalted virtues. In his famous letter to his son, the great Spanish sage Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) called it “the finest of all admirable traits.”
Arrogance, on the other hand, was seen as one of the most negative characteristics in the whole catalogue of human character. According to the Talmud, God Himself abhors the arrogant to such an extent that “He and I cannot dwell together in this world.”
The Torah states categorically that the Almighty Himself declared Moses to be “the humblest man on the face of the earth.” The commentators explained that although Moses was the most powerful leader in history, who took the Israelites out of bondage, split the sea and received the Tablets from God, it didn’t go to his head.
Why? Because he always considered his strengths and qualities as gifts from God. Had someone else been granted those very same talents, he reckoned, they might have done even better. So, Moses was simultaneously the greatest prophet and leader of all time and also the humblest of all men.
And he was a role model to all future spiritual leaders.
Greatness is no reason for arrogance. Indeed, the truly great are truly humble.
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 Ktav.com and Amazon.
This article was adapted from a column published at Chabad.org/parshah.