Pride Vs. Humility
A while ago I was asked about the true importance of humility. Several weeks earlier I had started a new job. Needless to say that acquiring a new job and keeping it requires a certain amount of pride and even conceit. New or potential employers usually ask whether you can do something that you can do since it is written on your resume. The answer is usually given in a tone of voice that is far from the humility we try to learn as part of our Torah studies.
At the time I did not answer the question of the importance of humility. In addition to being taken aback with the timing of the question I was very busy with my new job.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski discusses this issue in his book “From Bondage to Freedom” which is actually a commentary on the Haggadah of Passover. He discusses the difference between pride and self esteem.
In Judaism there is almost no room for pride. The Gemarah (Sotah 5) says that there is not enough room in the universe for G-d and a conceited person.
However, self-esteem is very important. You need to realize what you are, what you learned and what you can do. Being proud that you have solved complicated questions in Torah studies or at work is very bad. However, realizing that you have the ability to solve such problems in the future is good. Rabban Gamliel (Avot 2) said, “In a place where there are no men you should try to be a man.”
Becoming humble does not need to be painful. The most sickeningly conceited people who are so blind that they do not see the people they talk to can have humble moments. Sitting in a Succah with friends and family can bring a person down to earth and to speak in humble way. A Succah is not usually majestic and does not have soft couches. Most people are happy to receive visitors and to visit others in their Succah. These are activities of the humble.
Proud and conceited people cause so much damage. Written History is a record of proud people killing each other and their nations.
I recently attended a presentation where the speaker was totally blind to the existence of the people that he was addressing. This is even more distressing as the speaker is the spokesman for City Hall. The listeners were ordinary citizens that were happily accepting what was being presented.
The spokesman was basking in his “power and fame” while his lungs were pushing empty air out of his mouth. At the beginning of the presentation the entire mayoral entourage had been oblivious to the existence of the several hundred citizens present. Indeed, their intention was to make the award to some external political pal who was part of the mayoral entourage. After much of the crowd murmured the mayor himself came down to earth at the face of losing the votes of an entire neighborhood.
Haughty, self centered, filled with yourself, filled with air, arrogant, egotistical, conceited or any other description you would like is the most unhealthy attitude which a person can have. Our Rabbis of Blessed memory have discussed the dangers to this kind of people.
A person should always be soft like a reed and not hard like a cedar. A Reed lives in places of water, and its trunk changes, and it has many roots. If all of the winds of the world were to blow upon it, it will not budge. Instead it comes and goes with them. When the wind stops blowing the reed stands in its place. A cedar does not stand near water, and its trunk does not change, and it as few roots. If all of the winds in the world were to blow upon it, it does not budge. However, if a southern wind blows, it is uprooted and turned over on its face. (Sefer Haagadah 554 after Sanhedrin 105b; Taanit 20a)
I always enjoy (although I probably should not) seeing People that are so filled with themselves get blown down like this cedar.
During Succot we read the book of Kohelet which was written by Shlomo Hamelech. There it is pointed out that people who consider themselves important and oppress others are taught by G-d the truth. The truth being that the person so filled with himself is no different from an animal. At the end they all drop dead. (Kohelet 3,18-19 also see Rashi)
Therefor there is no reason for people to be filled with themselves. There is no objective difference between a great ruler and a person shriveling up and dying from AIDS in a poor country without health care. The only advantage the ruler might have, if he is not assassinated, is that he will be able to experience the emptiness of his life for a while longer.
In the Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart it is discussed when pride is appropriate. It says:
Pride is praiseworthy when the learned man is proud knowledge and pious man of his good deeds, but when he is proud as an expression of gratitude towards G-d for his great grace and his resultant happiness. Pride drives such a man to desire the increase of his knowledge and good deeds and to greater exertion for their sake…. (Littman Library Edition pg. 324)