Should I be humble or should I be assertive? These are both supposedly good things to be, but one prevents the other, doesn’t it? Let’s take a closer look. There are many reasons for being humble. Here are some of the common ones:
You think that you are not so special and have nothing special to share with the world. It’s just your nature to be humble and keep your mouth shut. You keep on failing and make mistakes, so you don’t feel very proud of yourself. You didn’t sleep well last night, so you’re feeling low. There are also many reasons for being assertive:
You think you’re very successful and smart. You perceive that people listen to you and do what you want when you assert yourself. It’s just the way you are. Nobody but you knows how to do things right. You didn’t sleep well last night, so you’re in a bad mood.
Looks like humility and guts are not compatible fellows. So what is the right path to take? Moshe, the Torah tells us, was “the most humble of all men upon the face of the earth.” Yet he had the courage to stand up to Pharaoh and even argue with G-d Himself. King David sang, “I am a worm and not a man.” He meant it from the bottom of his heart, but you should have seen him swing that sword on the battlefield! Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus was known for his humility – he would never say a word of Torah that he did not hear from his teacher – yet he was in constant clash with his colleagues and stood his ground to the end. The same with Rabbi Akiva, who was so humble he sat in a class of small children at the age of 40 – and yet stood in fearless rebellion against the awesome Roman Empire.
So how did these great and holy scholars manage to swing two opposite attitudes at once? It turns out there’s an alternative form of humility. A humility that has nothing to do with self-deprecation or with a sheepish nature. It also turns out that the same humility comes with a sense of power – but not the sense of power that comes out of ego or pushiness. Quite the opposite.
It’s the sense of, “Yes, I know who I am, what I can do and what I can’t. But I stand in the presence of something much larger than my little self, so much larger that there isn’t any room left for my own ego. Something before which a thousand universes are less than dust, and from which all things extend. Something which is infinite.” Sensing the presence of the Infinite is kind of humbling, just like standing before some incredible genius, a superhero-type you really admire. Only more so.
Sensing the Infinite is also very empowering. Because you can’t sense the Infinite without becoming absorbed. There, in that space, humility and courage don’t struggle with one another. There, all your faculties are united as one to fly high above any challenge and go right through any obstacle – to take on the entire world without flinching. And yet, all of you is but a transparent window for the Infinite Light to shine through into the world, like Moshe, like King David, like Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva – our heroes.
In our relationships, when do you forgive and forget, and when do you demand redress from those who hurt you? When do you say “No”? When do you say “Yes”? When a person finds the correct balance of humbleness and assertiveness, it paves the way for successful, stimulating, and meaningful relationships with others.
The Torah provide us with explicit guidance on how to assert ourselves and how to tackle difficult topics in our relationships. It guides us as to when we should respond and when it’s best to keep quiet. People who are generally more assertive can’t seem to understand those who can’t speak up for themselves so easily. What comes easy to one is a big challenge to the next. If you are someone who can express and assert yourself, try to recognize those who struggle to get one thought across and give them a good word or encouragement. This act of noticing difficulties in other people, even if it’s just with their speech, will bring you humbleness.
Our great sages were so righteous because they knew the balance between these two traits. In this week’s portion of the Torah we see how Yaacov sent angels ahead of him to his brother Esav. Yaacov spoke to his brother with respect and humbleness even though he knew that Esav wanted to kill him. Yet on the other hand, Yaacov prepared for war, showing very well that inside he was assertive and was able to have both traits within him.
May we learn from our holy sages and holy fathers and mothers just the right balance between assertiveness and humbleness.