Rosh Hashanah Morning: Living Life with Humility

Living Life with Humility

Rosh Hashanah 5784

Rabbi David E. Levy


He was laughing.  Laughing! I was so indignant, as only children can be. Then he smiled at me, and said with a twinkle in his eye, “David, reach behind you, and feel in between your shoulder blades.” Begrudgingly, I did as he asked. I looked back at him with accusatory eyes wondering why he had wasted my time! “Don’t feel anything?”, He lovingly asked. “That’s because you’re not an angel, you’re a human being. Be kind to yourself, have humility, and don’t make assumptions.” 

Wisdom to live by.  My grandfather, Iz, was an imperfect human like me, like all of us, and in so many ways I have tried to live my life the way he did. He was a true gentleman, humbly opening the door for someone with a smile on his face, and was such an amazing listener, always curious about what anyone had to say, and asked thoughtful questions in a way that made you feel seen and validated. I remember one Sunday dinner, sitting down with him, over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, his favorite. We were processing an argument I was having with a friend, and I made a bold declarative statement, as only a teenager can: “I’m not wrong!” And his caring response was: “What do you think your friend would say?” Every day I feel guided by a piece of wisdom he taught me. He was a paragon of humility in the best sense of the word. 

Humility helps us cultivate and deepen our relationships: both with ourselves, and others. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, one of the great thinkers of our generation defined it: “Humility – true humility – is one of the most expansive and life-enhancing of all virtues. It does not mean undervaluing yourself [rather, giving yourself the value you deserve with all your strengths and shortcomings.] It means valuing other people. It signals an openness to life’s grandeur and the willingness to be surprised, uplifted, by goodness wherever one finds it.”

Before we go any further, let me say: I recognize the hubris of preaching on humility, and to provide myself and my grandfather as examples no less! As they say, the first step of overcoming anything is admitting that you have a problem, and I believe that we have a problem: all of us. Every doctor I’ve spoken to, every article I’ve read has reminded me that we’re going to need a lot of humility to get through this thing called. Because we simply don’t know what the future holds.  Humility reminds us that we’re not in the driver’s seat. 

Rosh Hashanah announces Malchuyot, God’s sovereignty, and it is the opening theme of the Shofar service we will be offering this morning. Our music and prayers acknowledge the fact that we only control so much, and we need the humility to understand our limitations. Today as we welcome 5784, the birthday of the world, our Rabbis looked at the story of creation, and said that humanity  “…was created on Shabbat eve so that if a person becomes haughty, God can say to him: The mosquito preceded you in the acts of Creation…” so remember your humble origins.

This midrash reminds me of the so-called “overview effect”, the change in perspective that people undergo after they’ve seen earth from outer space.  As Neil Armstrong reflected about his experience on the moon,  “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

In the world today, there are so many things that divide us. Borders, political parties, religion. But there is at least one thing that unites us: that we are all fragile human beings living on this pale blue dot. One avenue into humility is to recognize our place in the world. To accept the fact that we are not necessarily the pinnacle of creation, but a part of something larger than ourselves. That we need other people, and that the work is too big to do alone.  When we approach others with hubris, we aren’t having a conversation with them. We’re simply shouting our own opinions over each other. But what if we listened and valued what the other person had to say?

Nelson Mandela once said: “If you want the cooperation of humans around you, you must make them feel they are important – and you do that by being genuine and humble.” Mandela was freed from twenty seven years of prison in 1990, and the first free and fair elections in South Africa were in 1994, where he would be voted in as President. Apartheid was slowly dismantled over these four years and changes were scary for the white minority. 

In 1993, a white insurrectionist army was formed in South Africa under the leadership of General Constand Viljoen. They called themselves the “Bittereinders after the Afrikaners who 100 years earlier fought the British to the bitter end. They [saw] themselves as freedom fighters, prepared to use whatever means necessary.”  War seemed inevitable, but on August 12, 1993, General Viljoen was convinced to sit down with Mandela. And it was Mandela’s humility that produced peace. 

It began with a big grin: Viljoen arrived at Mandela’s home expecting household staff, but instead Mandela was waiting for him. He welcomed him in, offered him tea exactly as he liked it, and engaged Viljoen in a conversation that didn’t demean him. Mandela spoke to him in Afrikaans, Viljoen’s native language and the language of the White populations, and made it clear that he knew the culture of the Afrikaners. He drew parallels between the current struggle to end Apartheid, and the original struggle of the Bitereinders, who fought for freedom from the British a century before. The moment that turned the tide was when Mandela turned to Viljoen and said: “General,… there can be no winners if we go to war.’” and Viljoen agreed: “There can be no winners.” 

It was that humble conversation that convinced the General to choose the democratic process, and not violence and bloodshed. Each time Viljoen and Mandela shook hands, and engaged in conversation, their shared admiration grew. Their political beliefs couldn’t have been farther apart, but through a shared sense of humility, they were able to move past those tensions, and find their common belief in a better South Africa. 

When we approach conversations with humility, when we start with questions and not with preordained answers, when we go through the effort of trying to understand the human being across the table from us, and not trying to convince them: that is when we experience the transformative power of humility. As Mandela models for us, humility is crucial when there is a power imbalance, and our Jewish tradition makes humility a requirement for any leader. Indeed the greatest leader of Jewish tradition earned the moniker the most humble of men. 

Chapter twelve of the book of Numbers begins with a rancorous critique of Moses, his marriage, and his leadership, by his very own siblings, Miriam and Aaron. What’s compelling about the exchange is that Moses does not strike back when they lash out. He listens, and remains silent throughout the exchange, as he tries to understand the real reason for their criticism. I believe he understood that if his brother and sister were attacking him out of the blue, unprovoked, it had more to do with Miriam and Aaron than it did with him, and our text honors him with the title the most humble of men. People in pain inflict pain. Striking back rarely solves anything. But if we have the humility to listen, and try to understand the real reason this aching human being is standing in front of us, we might get closer to a true resolution. 

I’ve been reminded, time and again, that even common phrases we speak on a daily basis create walls when we actually want to create windows. I have been trying to strike the phrase “I understand” from any conversation I have because as well intentioned as it may be, assuming we understand what any other person is going through is a recipe for disaster. If we approach our conversations with humility, we must acknowledge that we may never understand and sometimes sitting silently is the best thing we can do. By asking questions, and embracing awkward silences, we can be simply present for another person’s lived experience. One article calls it “the grandparent rule,” encouraging us to give every person we speak to the same reverence we’d give to our own grandparents: listening carefully with deep respect; pausing, asking questions and wondering what another person is thinking, feeling or experiencing; giving them time to talk without interrupting or focusing on what we might say next.  

Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, wrote a book about how we should interact with people we disagree with, and how our first instinct: “…to preach about why we’re right, and prosecute them for being wrong…” typically backfires, and in most cases further entrenches someone’s mindset.  After a typical barrage of preaching and prosecuting, most people end up “…more certain of their own opinions and more ready to rebut alternatives.”  Given this, is it any wonder that people choose to listen only to the news that already fits their views? 

The most effective course through disagreement is to listen more than we speak, like Moses, and to ask questions in a humble and thoughtful manner like Abraham. In the Torah, Abraham is famously portrayed as having questioned God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. What makes Abraham’s line of questioning compelling is his humility. Before he even speaks, Abraham begins by saying that he is only dust and ashes, he is the lowest of the low, having been created after the mosquito. He then asks God questions that are clarifying, not criticizing: Will God strike the righteous down along with the wicked? Could the righteousness of a few people redeem the cities for everyone? Abraham asks God to consider the values that are most important, and in the end, God agrees that if at least there are 10 righteous people remaining in the city, God will spare it. Abraham helped God find an intrinsic motivation for change through a process of interviewing and listening carefully. In the end, as is the end of many conversations like this, God’s mind is unchanged, but Abraham better understands where God is coming from, and the position has been thoughtfully tempered. In our own conversations, the best outcome we can hope for is to help another person refine their thinking and see if they are open to changing their minds. The rest is up to them.

Having the humility to engage like this is a gift. Because the most important thing is not what we or they believe: it’s the relationship that we share with another person, that we value what others have to say. The vast majority of our communication, which has become even more prevalent throughout this pandemic-social media, text, email, slack, or even Zoom- are all one directional. I talk at you. You talk at me. In so many of those interactions we both leave frustrated and feeling unheard. But it can change if we want to. Imagine how much more seen and valued people in our lives will feel after an in-person conversation that demonstrates that we actively want to know what they think, and aren’t just waiting for our turn to speak. Imagine how we might feel if given the same courtesy. 

Every moment of the high holidays challenges us to engage with humility, to live with humility and to lead with humility. These Days of Awe remind us that as much as we think we are in control of every aspect of our lives, we are not. Avinu Malkeinu teaches us that God alone knows all; Unataneh Tokef challenges the hubris of believing we can live forever; and the work of Teshuvah, of apologizing to those whom we have wronged, requires us to be humble enough to admit we’ve made mistakes. 

Imagine the impact on our relationships if we took this lesson and brought it with us throughout the rest of the year. If we remember that we are fragile human beings, who can be buffeted, even broken, by the storms of life. Remember my grandfather’s advice: touch the empty space between your shoulder blades. We’re not angels. Be kind to yourself, have humility, and don’t make assumptions. Let us accept who we are. Let us accept that we are only a small speck floating through our vast amazing world, and how lucky we are to live in it. 


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