Online Adult Jewish learning

Other Courses in this Series:

Bible 2: Isaac

Bible 3: Jacob

Bible 4: Bible Overview

Bible 5: Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel

Bible Series:

What is Humility?

Abraham's Military Victory (Genesis 14:14-17)

Issue: How would you define humility? Do you associate humility with passivity and meekness? Is humility something that you admire in other people, but would not want to possess yourself? 

Lecture Synopsis: Humility is the recognition that anybody given my talents and opportunities in life could accomplish as much as I have and perhaps even more than me. Acknowledgment that our talents are G-d-given strengthens this perspective of humility.

The Lecture

Background: Summary of the Biblical narrative  
 Abraham's peaceful residence in the land of Canaan is shattered with news of his nephew Lot's capture by four powerful kings. Abraham rushes to his defense with a small band of 318 men. Miraculously, Abraham returns victorious from the battlefield. He is the regional hero. The lecture explores Abraham's reaction to his newfound recognition.

Sources: Biblical commentaries
In his victory over the Four Kings, Abraham's great moral character and physical strength are revealed.

Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (Genesis 14:5)

In the fourteenth year, Chedarlaomer and the kings who were with him came and struck the Rephaim. .the Zuzim . .the Emim . -This incident informs us of the mighty strength of the Four Kings, which in turn reveals Abraham's great physical strength, military prowess, and exceptional kindness toward his relative Lot in engaging them in combat. Abraham sacrificed his safety in order to battle the Four Kings and save Lot and his wealth.

Abraham returns triumphant from battle. He is the regional hero. How does Abraham react to this newfound recognition? 

Midrash (Breishit Rabbah to Genesis 14:17) 

The king of Sodom went out to meet him. . . . the Valley of Shaveh. The valley was called Shaveh (Equal) because of a unanimous decision by the nations to erect a platform and crown Abraham their king. They praised Abraham, saying: "You are our king!, You are our prince! You are our god!" Abraham responded to them: "The world is not lacking its King! The world is not lacking its G-d!"

Synopsis of Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno: The narrative of Abraham's battle with the Four Kings informs of his physical (i.e. battling 4 mighty kings), and moral (i.e. risking his life to uphold his commitment to Lot) strengths. 

Synopsis of Midrash: Abraham did not take any credit for his victory over the Four Kings. 


Defining Humility: A common view  
The Random House Dictionary defines "Humility" as "feeling insignificant, inferior, or subservient". To many people, humility is associated with unassertiveness or feeling inadequate about oneself. While it is true that humility is the opposite of conceit, it does not require an inferiority complex. Let us study the Torah view of humility. 

Defining Humility: A Jewish view  
"Moses was very humble, more than any other man on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3)." 

Was Moses really so humble? He certainly did express his feelings of inadequacy for the job of being G-d's agent to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt (Exodus 3:11; 4:10), but he also asserted himself many times (e.g. Killing the Egyptian [Exodus 2:12], speaking forcibly to Pharaoh [During the 10 Plagues], smashing the Tablets [ibid. 32:19], etc.)

In defining the word "anavah" (Hebrew for humility), classical Jewish commentaries teach us how talent and humility can coexist. Rabbi Shlomo, son of Yitzchak (1040-1105 France) defines an act of anavah (humility) as an act done naturally and without a sense of special importance. 

Humility is the recognition that anybody given my talents and opportunities in life could accomplish as much as I have and perhaps even more then me. A world-class weightlifter who lifts 500 pounds or a person with an I.Q. of 180 who solves a complex math problem can remain humble by recognizing that anybody given their physical or mental strengths could accomplish what they have done. For a person with the spiritual capabilities and opportunities of Moses, communication with G-d is commonplace. 

Recognizing our G-d given talents  
In order for our definition of humility to be truly practical, we must add another element to it. The knowledge that anyone with my talents could act as I have may still be insufficient to generate humility. I may still feel arrogant about the very real fact that I have been granted certain talents. Here is how the Torah teaches us to deal with our talents. 

You may eat and be satisfied, building fine houses . . . Your herds and flocks may increase, and you may amass much silver and gold . . . But your heart may grow haughty, and you may forget G-d . . . and say to yourself, 'It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity'. You must remember that it is G-d your L-rd who gives you the power to become prosperous. (Deuteronomy 8:11-18)

Ramban (ibid.) explains that G-d warns the Jewish people against feeling conceited because they are so talented. Jews are fearless warriors, intellectual "overachievers," and spiritual giants. To be truly humble, you must recognize that G-d chose to create you with your unique talents. G-d gave you certain talents as a means to accomplishing your divinely ordained role. 

Abraham's humility  
Abraham was a multi-talented individual. His sense of humility was not a result of unassertiveness or inactivity. Recognizing that G-d was the source of his physical strength and military genius made it possible for him to recognize his very real physical and intellectual talents, and yet avoid taking credit for his military victory. Upon his triumphant return from battle, people pointed their fingers at Abraham. "Abraham is the source of our success," they said. With one gesture skyward, Abraham directed their attention to the source of his success.

Facing our own successes with humility  
The spotlight of mankind so prominently shines on the Jewish people. We have spread monotheism to large segments of the human race, we posses 11% of all Nobel prizes, and we confound military analysts in our victories. Our national and individual challenges are to recognize the source of our talents. They are challenges to remain humble in the face of our greatest successes.