May I Humbly Suggest: Humility

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Aaron and I were driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway this summer. Actually, Aaron was driving; I was a passenger — and, as it turns out, that difference matters sometimes. The mountains are my “happy place,” and it was a hot, but beautifully clear day. I felt like we were climbing up into the sky, and I said as much to Aaron, who laughed and replied: “Well, not exactly, since we’re going down.”

“What?” I asked. “How can we be going down?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but we are.”

“What do you mean?” I responded, and pointed. “Look at those trees up ahead; they’re above us.”

“Uh, no,” he said with a smirk. “They’re below us.”

I still can’t explain what was happening. Some sort of optical illusion, like this hillside we once went to in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, where you put the car in neutral and though it feels like you should roll forward, the car rolls backwards, seemingly uphill. It was something like that, except that then we both experienced it the same way. Here, we were literally on the same road, in the same car, and yet it felt like we were on totally different journeys. It was disorienting… upsetting… and, in fairly short order, it became infuriating, as well. My fists clenched, my voice rose, and I looked at my husband with incredulous confusion and anger: How can you be so wrong about this? Why aren’t you perceiving this as I do??

Here’s the thing: Objectively, I have to admit, it’s very likely I was wrong. Aaron was driving the car, after all; he knew when he had to push the gas pedal and when we could just coast. But my experience was my experience and no one in that moment could convince me I wasn’t right. (We know — Aaron tried.)

Consider any number of the debates raging around us right now, and we’ve all been in these heated exchanges — sometimes face to face, sometimes on social media; in the emails we send, and the ones, using our better judgment, we don’t. As I shared on Rosh Hashanah, the world has clarified into an us and a them. As Amanda Ripley has written: “We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side.” [1]

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about how curiosity can help heal the polarization in our relationships and communities. This evening I’d like to focus on another key to bridging our divides — an essential attribute in all too short supply, everywhere: Humility.

“Humility,” writes Adam Grant, “is often misunderstood … [as] a matter of having low self-confidence.” It’s often perceived as being shy or quiet or noncommittal. Yet “one of the Latin roots of humility means ‘from the earth.’ It’s [actually] about being grounded — recognizing that we’re flawed and fallible.” [2] Or as Alan Morinis puts it: “Being humble doesn’t mean being nobody: it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.” [3]

In Judaism’s Mussar practice — spiritual growth through the cultivation of inner virtues — humility is the most frequently discussed attribute. By far. In fact, it’s taught that all of the other middot, all of the other virtues, can be accessed through this one core trait. [4] And once again, as with curiosity, Moses is our model.

The Torah tells us, in Numbers 12:3, that “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” I’ve always chuckled at that line — I mean, how humble can one be while simultaneously keeping score? But the Torah doesn’t just say Moses was humble; he demonstrates it.

The daughters of Zelophehad appear before Moses with a matter of legal concern and significant personal impact. Their father, as they explain, died in the wilderness and left no sons. As inheritance procedures had thus far been explained to the Israelite people, in the absence of a male heir, the plot that would have been assigned to this family in the Promised Land would now be assigned to someone else. “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan because he had no son!” his daughters plead. “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen.” (Numbers 27:4)

Well, this is interesting. The law clearly seems to refute Zelophehad’s daughters’ request — and yet, could Moses be sure? This exact case, as with so many others in the formative years of the Israelite nation, had not come up before. So what did Moses do? Numbers 27:5 tells us: “Moses brought their case before the Lord.” “You know, I don’t know,” Moses told the sisters. “Let me check.” And he relied on God’s authority, rather than his own, for a definitive answer.

Humility, for Moses, took the form of recognizing his own limitations and turning to God when needed. As my colleague, Rabbi Max Weiss, writes: “Moses’s humility is based on his recognition that he lives his life among and with his people, not at the center and not above them.” [5]

Tradition teaches us we don’t need to be Moses; we just need to be the best selves we can each be. So what can humility look like for us?

First, in moments of disagreement, when we reach what seems to be an insolvable impasse, humility is the ability to say, “If one of us is wrong — well, it could be me.”

According to Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, Maimonides, the great Jewish scholar and teacher, was always troubled by the story of the Garden of Eden. “Why,” he wondered, “would God not want human beings to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Would it not be of benefit, providing the necessary understanding to make moral choices?” His feelings about the story changed when he began to consider that perhaps humanity had as much to lose as to gain in the Garden of Eden. Prior to eating the forbidden fruit, he taught, “we had a superior knowledge … knowledge of truth and falsity. All we have after violating the divine command is relative judgment, uncertainly grounded in personal feelings about right and wrong, contingent upon culture and context.” [6]

I cannot begin to tell you the number of disputes I have mediated, in the many settings in which I mediate disputes as a rabbi, in which someone was absolutely certain, fully confident of their correct understanding… in a subjective situation. And far more situations are subjective than we realize. Therefore, as Mikva teaches, the humility that comes from “embracing a learned ignorance, where no one is in perfect possession of ultimate reality” is a virtue. Cultivating a “doctrine of doubt” is a best practice. And maintaining “moral confidence” rather than “moral certainty” can go a long way toward repairing our polarization; even preventing it in the first place. [7]

Humility is recognizing the role personal feelings, relative judgement, and cultural context play in our disagreements. Humility is being able to say that, though I feel certain in this dispute, I can still hold a measure of doubt and allow that I might be wrong — or at least not unilaterally right.

Because the second way we can demonstrate humility is to realize that even in situations where we may be right, perhaps someone else can be right, too. Someone doesn’t necessarily need to lose for us to win. Humility is graciousness in victory as well as defeat.

I don’t know about you, but every four years (or five, as the case may be), I become a blubbering mess while watching the Olympics. Judo, marathon power-walking, team badminton… it doesn’t matter what the sport is — every time I watch, it seems there is some human interest story that pulls at my heartstrings and opens the waterworks. This summer, it happened in track and field. Mutaz Essa Barshim (from Qatar) and Gianmarco Tamberi (from Italy), were tied after six rounds in the high jump. In their first six jumps, they had each cleared the bar perfectly. But then neither one was able to execute a higher jump over their next three attempts. So, after the end of regulation, they remained tied. An official came over to ask them about starting a “jump off,” but then Barshim looked at Tamberi and asked the official: “Can we have two golds?”

It’s a great video; I recommend you watch it (with Kleenex handy). Because as soon as the official says, “It’s possible,” and tries to explain the consequences of what would happen, Tamberi has already jumped into Barshim’s arms screaming, and the two smile and celebrate. For both athletes, the fact that the other has a gold medal in no way detracts from the accomplishment of their own.

It begs consideration: In what ways do we predicate our successes on others’ losses? How many times in a disagreement are we looking for “victory,” and how often do we define victory as the unilateral acquiescence of another side? Humility is recognizing that, in so many situations, there are multiple perspectives worthy of consideration. (And it’s worth noting: Empathy lies in that recognition, as well.)

Finally, as we will repeat again and again this Yom Kippur: We all make mistakes. We’ve made them this past year, we made them every year before that, we’ll surely make new ones in the year to come. The by-product of our human fallibility are almost constant opportunities to demonstrate humility. Because, perhaps most importantly, humility is admitting we’re wrong when we’re wrong, and learning from our mistakes.

Dr. Richard Boothman, who served as the Chief Risk Officer in the University of Michigan Health System for seventeen years, shares the following experience: [8]

Christine was a vibrant seventy-two-year old woman who began to have headaches and then a dizzy spell. A CT scan ordered by her physician showed a congenital problem in her brain … [which] posed a risk for bleeding and rupture. So, her physicians … clotted it off. …

The procedure went beautifully, but in the middle of the night her nurses noted that one side of her face was drooping and her grip strength was diminished, worrisome suggestions that she had suffered a stroke of some sort. …

[They rushed] Christine down to the CAT scanner. If the neuroradiologist saw signs of a bleed, they would get her directly into the operating room and drain the blood. And if there were no signs of a bleed, it was probably a clot, in which case they would give her heparin, a powerful anticoagulant, and see if they could restore her circulation. Great plan. So the resident summoned two experienced surgical intensive care nurses and said, ‘get me 3,000 units of heparin and come with me.’ They ran down in the middle of the night to the CAT scanning unit and determined there was no sign of a bleed. They administered the heparin, and she improved dramatically for about forty minutes, and then she crashed. An emergency scan revealed a dramatic new intracerebral bleed, so large it was deemed inoperable. …

At 6:00 in the morning when I had just arrived in the office, [Dr. Boothman remembers,] the chief resident was peering around the corner in tears. At that very moment, the attending surgeon, summoned from home, was meeting with sixteen members of Christine’s family informing them that Christine was on life support solely to allow them a chance to say good-bye. The attending talked about the inherent dangers of heparin that caused Christine’s complication, concluding that there was nothing he could offer aside from his deep sorrow and sincere condolences.

What the attending didn’t know at that moment was that during the night, the chief resident had rummaged through medical waste and found the empty containers of heparin he had administered. His worst fears were realized. In the heat of the moment, in the middle of the night, he had seen 1,000 on each of the three vials. He had not noticed in smaller print, ‘x 10.’ He had administered 30,000 units of heparin, not 3,000. He was the only one who knew this and he was there to confess it to me. … He showed up in my office, tears streaming down his face, and insisted that he tell the family the truth.

We introduced the resident to the family. Through his tears, he did his best to explain the mistake to the dumbstruck family who sat in stunned silence around Christine for what seemed to be an eternity. And then Christine’s sister stood, crossed the room and embraced him. She said, ‘We have watched you, and you really care. Remember my sister, but don’t you dare quit. You’re going to do a lot of good for a lot of people in your career. Don’t you dare quit.’ Amazing. I cannot imagine such generosity of spirit. Such forgiveness.

Within twenty-four hours, [Dr. Boothman continues,] we had emailed the entire organization. If you worked in the cafeteria or in housekeeping or in the operating room, you got an email that said this had happened. We removed heparin, loose in bins, from all but the most essential places, requiring caregivers to access it only through the pharmacy in the future. We put stop sign labels on the heparin that said (in essence) ‘pay attention, that’s ten times that one thousand number.’

My years in the medical system “have been a lesson in humility,” Dr. Boothman concludes. “The human capacity for forgiveness and understanding takes my breath away. Patients and families are more forgiving than anyone ever believed. Caregivers’ personal commitment and caring is boundless when they know it is safe to confront their limitations and mistakes and express their feelings. The soul of medicine resides in people, simple and complex, but all capable of soaring acts of generosity if only given the chance. We are all humbled by the experience.”

Friends, these Holy Days are the time of year when we confront our humanity. And, as human beings we know all this to be true: We have all made mistakes; we all will make mistakes. Sometimes irreparable; sometimes the realization of our worst fears. We hold strong opinions and beliefs, and disagree — sometimes bitterly — with others about them. We confuse opinion with fact, our viewpoints with truth. We demonstrate loyalty and love for our ideas, rather than the people who deserve them. And sometimes we’re just plain wrong. This is what it means to be human.

But humility is our secret weapon. It’s the corrective that allows the human experience to work. Humility lets us make space for others, center new voices, learn from our mistakes, take up less room. Humility can lead us to seek forgiveness, and humility can help us grant forgiveness to others.

Humility is a virtue and humility is a blessing — it means we get to learn from others, be inspired by them. Humility, as Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, has written, helps “us to realize that we are not alone when we attempt to change the world. We are part of a story much larger than our own. When we understand our place within a Jewish story that began thousands of years ago, we can hearken back to those who have handled moments of deep pain and difficulty before us and found strength.” [9]

None of this is easy, of course. If it were, we would do it instinctively and we wouldn’t need this soul-searching day. But I leave you with these words based on the writings of Rabbi Rami Shapiro [10], and the confidence that we can do it all the same:

Open your heart, he said

Open your eyes, see the truth

and forgive.

I can’t, I said

through clenched teeth. …

I’m hurt. …

Listen, he said:

You expect order; you think you can exert control—

this is the source of your pain.

The one who hurt you is trapped,

as you are trapped

in compulsion and fear.

Know this, he said:

All of life—haveil havalim,

a breath of air, a bubble that bursts in an instant.

So learn to live with impermanence;

accept uncertainty, and your suffering will ease.

You cannot guarantee security, he said,

But you can hold fast to wisdom.

Look at the world with new eyes, he said.

Let go of expectations

and you will relinquish anger.

In their place, love and compassion will blossom.

And then the clenched fist of your heart will open

and you [with humility] will forgive.

Amen, and Shanah Tovah.

[1] Amanda Ripley, High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, pp. 3-4.

[2] Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, p. 46.

[3] “Anavah-Humility: Shabbat as a Return to Our Authentic Selves,” Rabbi Michelle Pearlman and Rabbi Sharon Mars, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Anavah-Humility in Leadership,” Rabbi Max Weiss, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 225.

[6] Rachel S. Mikva, Dangerous Religious Ideas, p. 55.

[7] Ibid, p. 91.

[8] “The Soul of Medicine,” Richard C. Boothman, Radical Humility: Essays on Ordinary Acts, Rebekah Modrak and Jamie Vander Broek (eds.), pp. 107-125.

[9] “Anavah-Humility: Understanding Our Place,” Rabbi Joshua Mikutis, The Mussar Torah Commentary (Rabbi Barry H. Block, ed.), p. 92.

[10] Mishkan HaNefesh: Yom Kippur, p. 314.

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