Parashat Shoftim – The Greatest Virtue

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

In Parashat Shoftim, there is a section about the appointment and behavior of a king. It tells the Israelites that the king shall not be a foreigner, but one of their own people. This king must not have many horses, nor many wives, nor amass silver and gold for himself in excess, so that “his heart may not go astray.” The Torah says that the king is commanded to write for himself a second Torah scroll and carry it with him at all times. The idea behind this is that the king needs to maintain perspective. He should remember just where his power comes from and not make the mistake of thinking he is in control. He should read from it as long as he shall live, so that he will learn to fear God and not assume himself to be above his people or think he is permitted to turn aside from the commandments. In other words, he should remain humble. This conceptual shift regarding the nature of sovereignty is one of the genuine historical revolutions Judaism brought about. The notion that a king’s purpose was to serve God and to care for God’s people (rather than the other way around) was a radically new idea introduced by Judaism and later adopted by Christianity.

In the Jewish tradition, humility is considered among the greatest of the virtues; its opposites, pride and arrogance, are among the worst of the vices. Many great people are not very humble. But greatness and humility, in the Jewish tradition, are not incompatible. They complement one another. The greater the leader, the his/her humility is, because a humble person has no interest in his/her own honor, in power, or in self-aggrandizement. A great leader lives to serves those whom he or she leads.

Moses was the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had. Despite the fact that Moses was great in prophecy, Torah and wisdom, the trait that God found fit to mention in the Torah was his humility. Moses was very humble, more so than anyone on the face of the earth. That, the sages say, is the greatest and most genuine form of charisma. The question is: Was Moses great because he was humble, or was Moses humble because he was great?

J.P. Tangney, a professor of psychology at George Mason University, has identified six intrapersonal aspects of humility:

  1. A willingness to see ourselves truthfully with an accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses.
  2. An accurate perception of our place in the world
  3. The ability to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations
  4. The ability to keep an open mind
  5. The ability to focus less on oneself
  6. The ability to appreciate the value of all things.

We all tend to overestimate how much we know, how right we are, or how special we are. But what happens when we try to understand our own perspective and the opposing one? What might it be like if we were to acknowledge that perhaps we don’t know as much as we thought we did? Perhaps we might find ourselves changing our minds, being more flexible or open, and even more empathetic towards other people, their backgrounds, and their experiences.

Some think humility equates with low self-esteem. But this is not the case. To be humble does not mean to have a low opinion of yourself, but rather to have an accurate one—to put your accomplishments into perspective. You can also think of humility as knowing your strengths and talents yet understanding that you are only one of many people with those same strengths and talents.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says humility means that you are secure enough not to need to be reassured by others. It means that you don’t feel you have to prove yourself by showing that you are cleverer, smarter, more gifted, or more successful than others. Indeed, you do not need to compare yourself to others at all. You have your task, they have theirs, and this leads you to cooperate rather than to compete. This type of attitude allows you not only to see yourself clearly, but to see other people clearly as well and to value them for who and what they are. When you are secure in yourself, you can value others. When you are confident in your own identity, you can value the people who are different from you. Humility is achieved by shifting one’s focus from inward to outwards. It is truly understanding that, “it’s not about you.”

This outward focus of a humble leader compels him/her to listen to those he/she leads in order to understand and appreciate them in all of their diversity. Doing so means that a leader not only has the confidence of those he/she leads, but is unafraid of entering into dialogue with those who disagree with his/her views or decisions. Since the humble leader’s primary focus is on serving his/her constituency with integrity, popularity is irrelevant to them.

On a personal level, this applies to us as well. If we approach our lives with humility, then living in accordance with what we believe to be right will be more important to us than what others think of us. The humble person is unmoved by social pressures and unconstrained by societal norms – especially if those norms are unethical or unjust.

Humility is not only an approach to life and leadership but is also a character strength. As such, it is an essential component of one’s moral character; it manifests through modesty and empathy; through acknowledging and respecting others on a very deep level; and by accurately understanding as well as owning one’s limitations.

As a character strength, humility can be viewed as the opposite of pride, arrogance, and an inflated sense of one’s importance and talents. It is based on a fundamentally caring and compassionate attitude toward others.

Humility is directly related to one’s ability and willingness to learn. Humble people are better learners and better problem solvers. Humble students who are generally open to feedback often develop greater skills which enable them to overtake their peers – who may be more naturally more talented but think so highly of their own abilities that they reject all advice.

I found several quotes about humility that I liked:

  • “Humility isn’t denying your strengths; it’s being honest about your weaknesses.”
    • Rick Warren
  • “Pride is concerned with who is right. Humility is concerned with what is right.”
    • Ezra T. Benson
  • “Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It is thinking of yourself less.”
    • C.S. Lewis

Jim Collins, the founder of a management laboratory in Boulder, CO, writes in his book, Good to Great, that the most outstanding leaders are also the humblest. According to Collins’ research, the best leaders combine professional resolve with personal humility. They are often self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy – always privileging the institutions they serve over their egos.

Great leaders inspire loyalty and a strong team spirit. And what applies to leaders also applies to each of us as marriage partners, parents, fellow workers, members of the community and friends.

We can look to a local sports hero as an example.  Dirk Nowitsky, the greatest Dallas Maverick, was inducted into the basketball hall of fame last weekend. An article in the paper entitled, “Kudos for the Big Man with the Bigger Heart,” said:

“Beyond his on-court greatness, Dirk brought humility, compassion, and excellence to off-the-court activities. He amassed an off-court legacy of quietly giving of himself out of the spotlight—something truly unique for an elite athlete.  Even now Dirk seems to be more comfortable fitting in than standing out, a rare quality for someone whose adult life has been on a public stage.”

In his acceptance speech, Dirk credited his parents for teaching him humility.

In summary, humility is living with the understanding that we are simply doing our part by making a unique contribution to the world using the tools and strengths that God has given us. Each one of us has unique capabilities, so let’s respect ourselves and each other while working to remain humble.