Be humble before every man.
Ethics of the Fathers, 4:10
Lets be realistic. Is there no one out there who is
less intelligent, less accomplished or less virtuous than
yourself? Okay, discount the half-dozen degrees by which your
ego inflates your self-perception. Still, is there no one
on earth who is less worthy than you? So what does it mean
to be humble before every man? Is the mishnah
telling us that it is our moral duty to underrate ourselves?
To do so would be a sinful waste of our G-d-given talents,
which can never be optimally realized unless we are aware
and appreciative of what we have been given and what we have
accomplished. In the words of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak of Lubavitch:
Just as it is imperative that a person recognize his
own shortcomings, it is no less crucial that he recognize
his advantages and strengths.
How, then, does a person make a true evaluation of himself,
for the worse and for the better, and at the same time experience
a genuine feeling of humility before every other individual?
The Larger Picture
Chassidic teaching offers two approaches to develop a true
feeling of humility toward someone whose character or behavior
is obviously inferior to ones own: a) the mutual
dependency approach and b) the relative expectation
The first approach begins with the recognition that we are
all one, that together we comprise a single organism whose
various cells, limbs and organs complement and complete one
another. A body includes both the sophisticated brain and
the crass functional foot; but, ultimately, the
brain is dependent on the foot just as the foot is dependent
on the brain. If the foot is indebted to the brain for its
vitality and direction, the brain is dependent on the foot
to realize many of its goals.
The humble man looks at the larger picture rather than the
particulars, at the unified purpose of life on earth rather
than only at his function within this purpose. No matter how
lofty his own role may seem in relation to his fellows,
he is grossly limited without him. The knowledge that his
own lifes work is incomplete without his fellows
contribution arouse feelings of humility and indebtedness
toward his fellow: he recognizes that even the coarsest limb
of the mutual body fulfills a deficiency in himself.
In this approach, humility is not equated with a sense of
inferiority. Rather, it stems from a feeling of equality and
mutual need. In becoming humble, a person first realizes that
any greater measure of intelligence, refinement, spiritual
sensitivity, etc., that he may divine in himself in relation
to his fellow is nothing to feel superior about: these are
only the tools that have been granted him for his individual
role. He also recognizes the limitations of his own accomplishments,
and the manner in which they are fulfilled and perfected by
the communal bodys other organs and limbs. So he is
humbled by the ability of his inferior fellow to extend and
apply their shared mission on earth to areas that lie beyond
his individual reach.
The second approach, however, defines humility
in the more commonplace senseas a feeling of inferiority
in relation to ones fellow. How is this truly and truthfully
achieved in relation to every man? By conducting a thorough
evaluation and critique of his own moral and spiritual standing.
In doing so, one is certain to find areas where he has failed
to prove equal to what is expected of him. That his fellow
may be guilty of the same or worse is irrelevant: concerning
his fellows behavior he is in no position to judge.
Do not judge your fellow until you are in his place say our sages, for you have no
way of knowing how his nature, his background and the circumstances
surrounding any given deed may have influenced his behavior.
However, regarding your own behavior you are in his
(i.e., your own) place and in a position to know that,
despite all the excuses and justifications you may have, you
could have done better. With such an approach, a person will
be humble before every man in the most literal
sense of the term, perceiving his every fellow as superior
Fighting Fire with Fire
Which approach to take? On the whole, the Torah tells us
to accentuate the positive in ourselves. True, soul-searching
and self-critique are important, for a person must never delude
himself. However, excessive dwelling on ones shortcomings
and failures leads to a down-spiraling vortex of depression,
despair and inertia, resulting in the very opposite of constructive
action. So, generally speaking, the precept Be humble
before every man should be employed in the first manner
outlined above: not by disparaging oneself in relation to
another person, but by recognizing the indispensability of
each of ones fellows to the completeness of ones
But there is also a time and place for the second approach.
The soul of man is a spark of G-dliness, inherently
and utterly good; yet man must also contend with the egocentric
drives of his animal soul. Physical life is basically
the struggle between these two selves, between the divine-seeking
G-dly self and the material-seeking mundane self.
In the course of this struggle, a person may encounter a
lack in his character that proves especially resistant to
all his efforts. He may find this negative trait reinforced
by a sense that this is the way it is, there is nothing
to be donea humility and a self-depreciating
despair that actually stem from the ego-driven arrogance of
his animal self. In such a case, one must fight fire
with fire and administer a dose of its own medicine
to his animal soul. He must humble himself by contemplating
the lowliness of his animal nature, and that his compliance
with its drives and arguments renders him inferior to even
the lowliest of men.
This is the constructive side of the second approach to humility,
as a sense of inferiority. For at times, this is the only
way for a person to break the arrogant humility
of his animal self and proceed with the lifelong quest for
This is an excerpt from "Beyond the Letter of the
Law" by Yanki Tauber published by The Meaningful Life
 As one wise man put it, The test of humility
is in your attitude to subordinates (Orchot Tzaddikim,
Sefer Ha-Middot, 15c, ch. 2).
 Ethics of the Fathers, 2:4.
 A sage said: I never met a man in whom
I failed to recognize something superior to myself: if he
was older, I said he has done more good than I; if younger,
I said I have sinned more; if richer, I said he has been
more charitable; if poorer, I said he has suffered more;
if wiser, I honored his wisdom; and if not wiser, I judged
his faults lighter. (The Testament of Judah
 See opening chapters of Tanya.