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“For there is me”: The Paradox of Humility

Dyonna GinsburgFilmed at Limmud Conference 2015

This is a talk about humility and the difficulties of talking about humility. It's a talk about why we don't normally discuss humility and why we should. And, it's a topic I've thought about for quite some time. What do we do about the apparent paradox that the very act of cultivating humility can become a source of pride? Talking about humility is hard; incorporating it into our lives is even harder. But, despite the inherent difficulty involved, we need to recognize that humility is a central piece of Jewish values and beliefs, no less important than tzedaka or doing acts of chesed. And, Judaism's definition of humility might very well surprise you...

Dyonna Ginsburg is the Executive Director of OLAM, a collaborative venture to promote global Jewish service and international development. Prior to OLAM, Dyonna served as Director of Education and Service Learning at MAKOM / The Jewish Agency; Executive Director of Bema’aglei Tzedek, an Israeli social change NGO; and co-founder of Siach, a global network of Jewish social justice and environmental professionals. She has a BA in international relations from Columbia University and an MA in Jewish Education from Hebrew University. Originally from New York, she has been proud resident of Jerusalem for the past 13 years.

A story is told of the highly-esteemed Novardok Yeshiva, which emphasized character education, in addition to the advanced study of Talmud. Every day, the elite students of Novardok would crouch on the floor and chant, “I am nothing; I am but dust and ashes.” One morning, a freshman student arrived. Not wanting to stick out, he too sat on the floor and began chanting. “I am nothing; I am but dust and ashes.” Two upper-classmen took notice, rolled their eyes and said, “Huh! Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This is a talk about humility and the difficulties of talking about humility. It’s a talk about why we rarely have this discussion and why we should. And, it’s a topic that I’ve thought about for quite some time.

This is me. As a kid, I had an abundance confidence and loved attention. In shul, I sang with gusto; my voice, loud beyond my years, sometimes overpowering the rest of the congregation. When we had guests over for Shabbat, I often dominated the table conversation; at times, barely letting the adults get a word in edgewise. My parents would gently urge: “Shhh, a bit quieter, please. Honey, it’s time to give others some room.”

I was good at school and could barely contain my excitement when showing my report card. My parents, while proud of my scholastic achievements, would nevertheless chuckle and say: “Dyonna’s good at lots of things. And, she’s humble to boot!”

I remember the first time I experienced humility. I was in the ninth grade and had received an award in recognition of time that I had spent volunteering. I’d received this award along with several other Long Island teenagers and I had received third place.

I remember going to the ceremony, excited on the one hand and on the other hand a bit peeved as to having only received 3rd place. And then, I remember sitting at the awards ceremony, hearing account after account of the amazing achievements of my peers, and feeling awe and unease at my inclusion among those other, more deserving awardees. It was on that day that I learned that sometimes my own best work pales in comparison to that of others.

Thus, has begun a journey in the pursuit of humility. A journey that’s been long, and complicated and ongoing and one I think of often, particularly in a professional context. Every time I’m asked to submit a bio or introduce myself, or participate in a conference, I wonder: How much do I share and to what end? What is the fine line between promoting my organization and burnishing my own image? Should I speak up or should I step back?

Twenty years after my first experience of humility, I stand here embarrassed. To speak of The Good Deed Award, to share my own personal musings on humility, seems self-absorbed and wrong, a symptom rather than a solution.

Yet, I share my own personal story in an attempt to open up a conversation which that rarely occurs, at least not in the Jewish circles in which I travel – circles of many accomplished and talented people: What is humility? Why is it important? How do we cultivate it, can it even be cultivated?

It is not easy talking of humility. For years, the scientific community has struggled to devise a coherent strategy in order to measure it. Self-reporting doesn’t work. It’s near impossible to get an honest answer.

Moreover, the very act of cultivating humility can engender a sense of pride. Benjamin Franklin, who spent years working on keeping his ego in check, said: “even if it was possible for me to overcome it, I should probably be proud of my own humility.”

And so we are left tongue-tied, uncertain as to how to approach this topic, and asking ourselves the kinds of questions that I asked myself countless times in preparing this talk: Who am I to speak about humility? Does my desire for this talk to go well make me even less humble than before? And most importantly: Do I post a link to this talk on my Facebook page?

Yet despite the inherent difficulties involved, we must speak about humility. As passionate and committed Jews, we must recognize the fact that humility is a central value in our tradition, no less important than tzedaka or doing acts of kindness. We are told that Moses was “the humblest person that ever lived.” The Talmud teaches us that God chose to reveal Himself in the burning bush, because it was the simplest form of vegetation, and that Mt. Sinai was chosen as the location for the giving of the Torah because it was the lowliest mountain there was.

But, there’s another reason we need to speak about humility: It’s because our culture and society desperately needs it.

The rise of individualism, the advent of social media, the birth of the humanistic school of psychology have converged to create an environment in which calling attention to ourselves is the norm. Facebook. Instagram. Reality TV. The Selfie. Despite the positive uses of all these things, they reflect and feed into a culture that prioritises image and self-promotion.

What is the impact of this culture?

One the one hand, there is increased evidence of people walking around with an exaggerated sense of self. In 1950, 12 percent of US high school students told the Gallup Organization that they considered themselves, quote ‘very important;’ by the year 2006, that number had sky rocketed to 80 percent.

On the other hand, there’s increased evidence of behaviours linked with low self-esteem. The rate of teen suicide has doubled since 1968, as has anorexia and other eating disorders over the last 20 years.

And so in a culture that nurtures self-promotion, we have increasing numbers of people walking around with an exaggerated sense of self, or wanting to disappear. In both cases, they fail to see themselves and others accurately.

It is precisely in this environment, where the Jewish notion of humility, which is somewhat surprising, is needed. In Jewish tradition, humility is not self-negation. True, Moses may have been the humblest among people, and yet he stood up to the evil Pharaoh and led the Jewish People out of Egypt. The burning bush may have been the simplest of vegetation, and yet it was hardy enough to withstand fire. Mt. Sinai may have been the lowliest mountain, but it was a mountain after all, not a flatland or a crater.

Humility according to Jewish tradition, is having an accurate view of oneself, without the need to exaggerate information in either a self-promoting or self-debasing direction. It is being aware that one has infinite potential, and yet is infinitesimally small, at one and the same time. It is appreciating the strengths in others and extending oneself to others. As C. S. Lewis says, humility is “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

Rav Simcha Bunim, the 18th Century Hasidic master, suggested that each and every person carry around two pieces of paper in his or her pockets at the same time. On the one, the verse “for my sake the world was created” on the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” This is a suggestion that I liked so much that I literally carried around those two pieces of paper in my wallet throughout high school.

Rav Simcha Bunim’s suggestion indicates that the Jewish ideal is not one extreme or the other, but the ability to self-monitor and reach an appropriate middle-ground.

Perhaps the best illustration of this concept is the 3rd Century Sage, Rav Yosef, who asserted himself and, paradoxically, his own humility. The concluding chapter of the Talmudic Tractate Sotah lists the death of 10 rabbis and the vacuum that their deaths caused in the world: When ben Azzai died, the diligent ceased… When Rabbi Akiva died, the honor of the Torah ceased… when Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

Upon hearing this, Rav Yosef spiritedly objects and says, ‘Do not teach that humility has disappeared from the world, דאיכא אנא – for there is me.’

Some may read this as an example of the Talmud’s characteristic sense of humor. But, I actually think that it is pointing to the true – and paradoxical – nature of humility in Jewish tradition. Faced with the choice of relegating the value of humility to the dustbin of history and awkwardly asserting his own humility, Rav Yosef says “דאיכא אנא – for there is me.” I may not be the paragon of humility of a Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, and neither am I exempt from trying.

In the summer of 1996, a group of American Jewish high school students, a good friend among them, took Rav Yosef’s words and engraved them on matching silver necklaces. Several weeks before, they had studied this Talmudic passage together with their counselors on USY Pilgrimage, an Israel teen tour. They had liked the passage so much that, when it came time to design a keepsake to memorialize their summer experience, they chose Rav Yosef’s words, proudly displaying an ancient assertion of humility on their chests. If that’s not paradoxical, I don’t know what is.

It is tough to speak about humility. It’s even tougher, as we all well know, to incorporate it in our lives. But, we need to speak about it. We need to speak about it because the unique message of a healthy middle-ground between self-aggrandizement on the one hand, and self-negation on the other, the message that Judaism has to offer is desperately needed in our society.

Rav Yosef succeeded in reclaiming this value before it was lost to the Jewish people. We run a similar risk today, unless we too declare: דאיכא אנא – for there is me, for there is we. Strengths, weaknesses and everything in between. We may not be the paragons of virtue, but neither are we exempt from trying.



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