Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kol Nidre 5776 - Toward a Renewed Understanding of Humility

Kol Nidre 5776 - September 22, 2015
Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler, Congregation Am Echod in Lindenhurst

Jimmy Fallon, the usually irreverent host of the Tonight Show, was in the hospital this summer for ten days. “I started losing it halfway through,” he told the crowd on his first night back on the air. “I started reading books about the meaning of life.”

And which book did he show the audience?  Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl.

Frankl was a Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School when WWII broke out.  Then, he spent 3 years in various concentration camps, including Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and Dachau. 

His work after the Holocaust focused on trying to understand how people can endure suffering and survive.  In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes how finding meaning in life allowed some people to survive the horror.   Frankl believed that a higher meaning gave people something to stay alive for.

Though he’s hardly known for being the most serious person on television, Fallon spoke honestly and solemnly about reading the book and highlighting it on his Kindle.

He concluded after reading the book: “This is the meaning of my life. I belong on TV... I’m here to make you laugh. I’m here to make you have a good time … That’s my job. That’s why I’m here. I want to spread the love.” 

And, after sharing these insights on National Television, Jimmy Fallon did something else profound that evening.

He thanked people. He thanked his doctors by name. He thanked the nurses, his wife and family, and his comedian friends who reached out to him with what I can only assume was comic relief.

In Jimmy Fallon’s own search for meaning during a challenging time in his life, he exhibited the attribute of humility. “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” wrote C.S. Lewis.

Jimmy Fallon took the time that particular evening to contract his sense of self in order to acknowledge the strengths of others.

The human trait of humility is connected to many of our greatest leaders.  

At the end of the Torah we read that no one was ever as humble as Moses. The rabbis in the Talmud write that one shall strive to be as humble as Hillel. And, when Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, the master organizer of the Mishnah died, his contemporaries believed that nobody could be humble like he was. As the Talmud put it, “When Rebbe died, humility disappeared.”  

The importance of humility has been woven into the thinking of our greatest theologians and philosophers. In the tenth century, Rabbeinu Baachya wrote, "It follows that all virtues are secondary to humility,  which is the head and front of them all." According to Louis Jacobs, “greatness and humility, in Hebraic tradition, are not incompatible. They complement each other. The greater the person, the more humble he is expected to be and is likely to be.”

Humility is one of those words that we often use but rarely define.  We often mistakenly define humility as someone who is self-less, someone who thinks less of herself than she thinks of others.

But that’s not humility. Humble people are  confident and competent in themselves so much that, as a result, they have space in their hearts to focus on helping others.

Humble people just don’t feel the need to boast about themselves.  Instead, their actions are a reflection of their ideals.

Borrowing language from the business world, humility requires a shift from an ego system to an eco system.  An ego system is one that cares only about one’s own wellbeing, whereas an eco system is when one cares about the wellbeing of all, including oneself.

When operating in an ego system, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of only ourselves.  When operating using an awareness of the eco system, we are driven by the concerns and intentions of the whole.  

To me the most interesting difference here is that humility requires self-confidence and self-awareness à not self-depreciation.  Humility is having a quiet inner strength that enables the focus to be elsewhere.  The greatest leaders are often humble - and it’s not because they find value only in others.  Rather, they are able to be humble because they have the internal resources and confidence in their own merits so that they can make it their business to bring out the strengths of others.

Last year, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England, shared two stories of individuals who made a great impression upon him.  

He wrote that as Chief Rabbi, he and his wife were expected to hold dinner parties, and not just for members of the Jewish community. There was one guest who not only thanked the hosts but also asked to be allowed to go into the kitchen to thank those who made the meal. The person who did it was John Major, then British Prime Minister. He called that an example of humility.

The second story he shared was about Prince Charles visiting a synagogue on its 300th anniversary. What impressed Rabbi Sacks is that this man, the next in line to the throne, spent as much time talking to the young men and women who were doing security duty as he did to the guests. According to Rabbi Sacks, Prince Charles made them feel as important as anyone else on that special occasion. Again, another example of humility.

There has been a shift in our culture that encourages people to shout out to the world: LOOK AT ME. There’s not a lot of time or energy invested in thinking humbly or seeing ourselves as part of a collective whole.

But Judaism is often counter cultural.  We Jews are asked to emulate God and to approach life as best we can in the divine image. Tradition teaches that even as God was creating the world, God was humble.  

In a passage in the Talmud (Megillah 31a) we find:  Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘Wherever you find the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be He, there you find His humility.

In the tenth century, Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekuda dedicated an entire section of his book Duties of the Heart to explaining one’s obligation to have humility before God.  

“Pride…” he wrote,

can be of two types: one disgraceful and the other - praiseworthy...

The praiseworthy type is when a person is proud of his wisdom or righteous deeds, and considers them a great favor - [a gift from God].

This pride assists humility, and adds to it, as it is written, "humility brings about fear of God."

For Rabbeinu Bachya the other kind of pride, the one he considers to be disgraceful - is negative pride; it’s only this kind of pride that is antithetical to humility.  

But, positive pride, on the other hand, assists humility and enhances a sense of gratitude to God.  

Once one feels confident and proud, it’s possible to direct attention elsewhere. 
Negative pride is the type to avoid.  Negative pride is about arrogance, selfishness, and obsession with self.  It’s “Big Me”, and there is a lot of it in our world today.

Positive pride (and humility) are not in vogue today. David Brooks, near the beginning of his book The Road to Character, writes that there has been a shift in culture: a shift from a culture of self-effacement to a culture of self-promotion. Today, we are expected to shout: “recognize my accomplishments, look at me!”

Humility, on the other hand, can offer self understanding. When we acknowledge that we make mistakes and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves stretched and are able to see the value that others provide in the world.  

Humility does not disregard the self - it allows us to transcend it.  Humility gives us a gift of perspective, a unique kind of vision and honesty. 

We see ourselves as part of a whole, as an important member of a society, where our strength does not negate or disregard the strengths of others.

The High Holiday liturgy reminds us over and over again to take a step back, and distance ourselves from the Big Me mentality. When we recite the Amidah, we say “oz byadcha, u’gvura b’yeminecha”, (for we know that true sovereignty is Yours, power and strength are in Your hands).

As we look toward Yom Kippur and a new year, let us commit ourselves to strive toward a renewed understanding of humility.  And let us, in turn, renew ourselves to recall our place in the world.

Shana tova

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