For the week ending 8 January 2011 / 2 Shevat 5771

Greatly Humble

by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman -
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From: Anonymous

Dear Rabbi,

I will be honest. I have a problem with arrogance. What I mean is that I know I am conceited and I feel bad about it. I see it affects my relationships (or lack thereof) but I find it hard to change because I have gotten used to acting in a certain way and I almost feel like others expect me to act that way as well. I feel locked into a bad cycle that isn’t good for me but I can’t find a way out. Can you give me some advice?

Dear Anonymous,

Interestingly enough, it’s quite “natural” for us to feel arrogant. This basically originates from the fact that we were created in the image of G-d and are therefore “destined” for greatness. The problem is that instead of directing this potential to becoming G-d-like, we direct it “to becoming G-d”. What this means is that we take the credit for our G-d-given talents, deflecting recognition and praise from G-d to ourselves.

Now there is nothing wrong with knowing one’s strengths and talents. This is not, from a Jewish perspective, considered arrogant or conceited. On the contrary, how can a person fulfill his G-d-given purpose in life without being aware of the tools G-d gave him to accomplish his mission? Rather, arrogance is attributing greatness to oneself, while humility is attributing that greatness to G-d. So there’s no contradiction between knowing how “great” one is and being humble; conversely, knowing how great you are is not necessarily being conceited.

The question is where does one take it from there? How does this affect the way one acts? And this is the deciding factor regarding our relationship not only with other people, but also with the entire world around us.

A person who views himself as the source of his strengths and talents will naturally expect to be lauded by others and will simultaneously lord these attributes over others for his own advantage. In contrast, one who views G-d as the source of his assets will direct his praise, and the praise of others, to G-d. And he will simultaneously share these attributes with others for their benefit. Unlike the former who uses his G-d-given talents to exploit others, he exploits his G-d-given strengths to help others.

It should be clear, then, how and why this arrogance you describe affects your relationships with others. But how can you get out of this self-perpetuating cycle of damage?

The answer lies in the very reason why you can’t find the way out. Until now you thought that the only way to correct your arrogance is to deny your greatness. But that would be denying the truth since you are truly great (and I think this is the underlying idea behind what you describe as people “expecting” you to act a certain way).

What I suggest, however, is not to deny your strengths to yourself or to others. Let everyone continue knowing just how great you are. But from now on, make the mental switch of expecting and taking no credit at all, while simultaneously subjugating and sharing your talents with others for their benefit. There is nothing more humbling than admitting your complete reliance on G-d and indenturing your G-d-given strengths in the service of others. The greatness of this humility will be recognized by others the more you selflessly serve as a conduit through which G-dliness enters the world.

Just be careful not to get conceited about being so humble…

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