Humility – The Secret of Happiness

A Chasidic discourse by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneersohn, second day of Shavuot 5697-1937

Translated by Rabbi Amiram Markel

On the verse in Isaiah, [1]“And the humble will increase in joy of HaShem”, Rashi comments, “The humble are those who are long-suffering and suffer the yoke of the Holy One, blessed be He and His decrees patiently.”  However, this needs to be understood. Are not humility and joy naturally distant, being almost opposites? Humility is a sense of lowliness and the absence of self-esteem. This brings about patience and acceptance of the yoke or decree. The nature of one who is self-effacing is that he does not take himself into consideration altogether, suffers in silence, conceals his own virtues and is non self-assertive. This is because he is generally reticent and deliberate by nature. The nature of joyfulness, on the other hand, is that one feels confidant and buoyant. Because of this he becomes self-assertive and expansive, similar to an overflowing river. The result is that sometimes his joy is so expansive that it overpowers his usual limitations, as in the idiom that “Joy breaks all barriers”.

That is, not only is it like a river that rises to the limits of its banks, but more so, the joy is so great that it breaks through one’s limitations and spreads out with great abundance, like a river during the melting of the winter snows. Not only does it rise to the limit of its banks, but more so, its waters rush over great areas with much noise and turbulence, often reaching places that are quite distant from the river itself. Similarly, the nature of joy is that it breaks all barriers. This is because joy is emotional and by nature emotion feeds on emotion.

An example is a person who is very emotionally excited. Of course, when someone who is highly emotional by nature becomes excited, the excitement will fuel even greater excitement, until it breaks all bounds. However, even in a person of normal temperament, the emotion itself will incite greater and greater emotion. This is especially true in a time of joyous celebration. The excitement and emotional reaction tends to be one of excessive joy. It is readily observable that at such times, the emotional reaction itself arouses and magnifies even greater emotion, causing one’s sense of self-importance to grow and expand accordingly.

Even a person who normally is very deliberate in all his mannerisms, nonetheless, at a time of joy he suddenly seems to be transformed into a different person. He becomes talkative. His words are full of emotion and he talks at length about himself and his affairs. All this is only because the nature of joy is one of spreading forth in a way of expansiveness, which is the opposite of humility. This being the case, this verse, “And the humble (specifically) will increase in joy of HaShem” is enigmatic. Are they not two opposite tendencies? Humility is a sense of lowliness whereas joy is a sense of importance! Even more astounding is the implication that humility causes joy!!

The explanation is that man is “the intermediate creature” in that included in him is something of the supernal creatures and something of the temporal creatures. This is as stated in Talmud,[2] “Six things were said in relation to mankind; in three of them they are similar to the attendant angels and in three they are similar to the animals.” This means that in both body and spirit man has an advantage over both the temporal and supernal creatures.

Because man has the supernal and the temporal included in him, he therefore has an advantage over all other temporal creatures. Each creature has several characteristics that typify its nature. Therefore, a creature with an opposite nature is its opponent. For example, the eagle and the raven have opposite natures. They therefore are enemies. Man, however, has an advantage in that he includes within himself many opposite characteristics. Moreover, because he includes within himself something of the supernal as well, he also has an advantage over the angels. Not only does he possess the talent to delight in HaShem as they angels do, but more so, through this service of “love of delights”, he draws down and reveals great light into the world; something the angels cannot do. Due to this, one’s service of HaShem should specifically be with joy, because it is specifically joy that reaches into the aspect of the essence of the Infinite Light, blessed be He, thus drawing down great light.

Now, it is specifically self-nullification which is the receptacle to contain this great joy. This is because though, on the one hand, humility is a sense of lowliness, but on the other hand, it comes about through one’s recognition of the truth. A person, who is humble and self-negating in essence, is a person who recognizes the truth that whatever good quality he may possess is not attributable to him, but is rather an inherited characteristic which he received from his forefathers. It is because of this that he negates himself. This self-negation does not result from being a low person, but rather through setting himself aside because he recognizes the truth. Therefore, humility is specifically the receptacle to receive supernal joy.

The depth of the matter is that humility is not merely a vessel for joy, but more so, humility causes joy! Moreover, it is the diametric opposite of awareness of self. When one’s awareness is on oneself, not only is he not a receptacle for joy in that someone who is self-absorbed cannot be fully joyful, but on the contrary, self-absorption brings about depression! As known, the nature of the snake is perpetual depression, which is not caused by any lacking such as worrying about sustenance. On the contrary, his sustenance is readily available to him. A snake’s sustenance is dust[3] which is ubiquitous. Rather, depression is his natural tendency, the reason being that the primordial snake is “awareness of self”. Because of this a snake is in a state of perpetual depression. His self-absorption is itself the cause of the depression, though at first glance one would think that since he feels himself and therefore has a greater sense of his own goodness and self-worth, he would be more joyous. However, the opposite is true. Not only is he unhappy, but his self-awareness is the source of his unhappiness!

Now, this awareness of self actually does cause joy because, after all, it enhances his sense of self-goodness and worth. However, besides the fact that this joy is not a true joy, it ultimately leads to depression for two reasons: Firstly, whoever is self-conscious is in error about whom and what he is. Just as he is in error about how good he is, so is he in error about what he is. He errs not only about his own virtues but also about his immediate family’s virtues and the goodness of all his affairs. He fancies himself to be wise, understanding, knowledgeable in all matters, meticulous in right conduct and glorifies in his multi-faceted knowledge, clear understanding and proper opinions and vantage points.

Even if he is not particularly knowledgeable in Torah, he will haughtily mix in and express his opinions in Torah matters. And if he is knowledgeable in Torah, there will be no limit to his arrogance, constant self-praise, seeking of honor and self-aggrandizement. He will always speak of the proper conduct of his household, their noble qualities and the high standards of all that is his. All this is not at all an outcome of being “happy with his lot”, which is a good virtue, but is rather an outcrop of his haughty spirit, in that he errs about whom and what he and his family are. In truth this is a total error. In reality, he, his family and his affairs have many shortcomings. Furthermore, his fellow and his fellow’s family and affairs have much goodness.

All this is a consequence of the fact that a person cannot see his own faults. He looks at himself, his family and affairs with a good eye, even magnifying their goodness, whereas in regard to all their offences, even gross shortcomings, self-love glosses over and covers it. As a result of this false assessment of himself, he believes that reward is rightfully coming to him. We see this characteristic in many G_d-fearing people, who conduct themselves with meticulous fear of heaven, whether in matters that personally affect them or in how they educate and direct the members of their household. Sometimes they even affect their friends for the good and have a positive influence on their neighborhood by making many wholesome and lasting friendships.

Nonetheless, many such people err in themselves. They believe that due to their good deeds and proper conduct, they deserve that in matters of children, health and sustenance etc. they should be dealt with from above differently than others. They believe that in exchange for their exemplary service and righteous conduct reward should to be coming to them. Even if it is true that their actions are proper and sometimes even exemplary, nonetheless, the truth of the matter is that this is how they aught to act, and if they don’t, then there is a lacking. This being the case, in truth there is nothing particularly exemplary about their good conduct. Rather, they are just correcting what would otherwise be a fault.

It is awareness of self that causes them to assess themselves wrongly in this manner, because a person who is self-aware will mistakenly believe that he deserves better. As a result, he will never be fully happy with what he has. Truth be told, a person’s happiness is more the result of a gift from above than a reward. A gift is something unearned and undeserved. That is why he is happy! On the other hand, when one receives his just reward, joy is not quite as applicable, since he is just getting what he earned. However, as a result of self-absorption he imagines himself to be greater than he actually is and his virtues and righteousness become precious and magnified in his own eyes.

We readily observe, that when a self-absorbed person does a favor for his fellow, even if he is good-hearted and does the favor with a good and generous eye, nonetheless, he will repeatedly emphasize how he did his friend this favor. This is not because he is miserly and that the amount spent was dear to him, because his main emphasis is on the effort expended, rather than the money spent. However, the only reason this effort takes on such importance to him is because of his own sense of self-importance. Therefore, because of his high opinion of himself, he emphasizes the goodness that he did. As a result, he believes that whatever he possesses is coming to him as his just reward. This being the case, there is nothing to be particularly overjoyed about.

The second reason is that he believes he is more than he actually is. Each one’s needs are according to what he is and since he believes he is more than what he is, whatever he has is never enough. In general, human nature is to want more than one has. If a person has one hundred, he wants two hundred and as the saying goes,[4]  “A person dies with barely half of what he wanted.” This is also true of people who are not self-absorbed. But since the self-absorbed believes himself to be much more than he really is, his expectations too become unrealistic. Because he believes he deserves much more, not only will he not be happy with his lot, but more so, he makes himself miserable. Whatever blessings he is given from heaven and no matter how much he is honored by his fellow man, it will never match up to what he imagines he deserves.

On the other hand the humble is always joyous and satisfied. His joy is complete, because since his consciousness is not into himself he does not consider himself to be particularly virtuous or important in any way. On the contrary, his whole lifestyle is not to be self-important, nor does any personal trait obstruct him from doing what he should be doing. Moreover, he does everything in the optimal way, whether in his personal affairs, the education and upbringing of his children or his influence on others. And in all this he does not attribute any specialness or superiority to himself. He recognizes the truth that this is simply what should to be done, and when one does what should be done, no special reward is forthcoming.

This being the case, whatever he has is by way of a gift, for which he is very thankful and joyous. Since he is not self-absorbed he does not delude himself about his self-worth and is satisfied with what he has. Nor does he become depressed if abundance is lacking, because he is not all that invested into his material needs anyway. Ultimately, his desires are of a higher order, so why should he upset? Firstly, HaShem is not rewarding him any less than he is worthy, and secondly, since he regards himself as nothing, he therefore lacks nothing and all is good.

Humility and self-absorption are not merely particular characteristics in and of themselves. On the contrary, they are general characteristics that affect all other characteristics and sensibilities in opposite ways. Basically, a self-absorbed person is delusional about himself. He is not necessarily hypocritical or dishonest. It is not that he presents himself as being one way when he knows he actually is another way. On the contrary, he actually believes the delusion. It is his truth, but it is not reality, and if it is not reality, it is false. A humble person, on the other hand recognizes the truth.

Humility and self-absorption even affect faith in opposite ways. It is not that a self-absorbed person does not have faith, G_d forbid. He may believe in HaShem completely. Nonetheless, his faith is not at all like the faith of a humble person. A self-absorbed person is coarse by nature and his coarseness permeates all his affairs so that, in a very subtle way, his coarseness even affects his faith. Everything about him, even what is good and commendable becomes permeated with coarseness. The opposite is true of the humble. Everything becomes refined including his faith and this faith permeates and illuminates everything.

This too is one of the differences between them. Since a self-absorbed person is coarse, therefore his faith does not permeate and illuminate everything. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, since all his affairs are coarse they only receive a glimmer of illumination from his faith. Secondly, since his faith itself is also coarse, its illumination is faint and ineffective in influencing his affairs. On the other hand, this does not mean that he lacks faith, G_d forbid. He too believes totally in HaShem. However, because he is coarse his faith has little influence on him. This is because, for him, his faith and his affairs are two separate and unrelated matters. On the other hand, since a humble person is refined by nature all his affairs become refined, thereby becoming illuminated by his faith.

As a result, because of his faith, a humble person is accepting and happy with his lot. He recognizes that everything is by Divine providence and that it all is for the good. Not only is he not discouraged, but on the contrary, he becomes strengthened! This is why Rashi explains that the humble are those who are long-suffering and patient. The quality of a patient person is that he recognizes that whatever negative situation he may find himself in is temporary, and that ultimately the hidden good will be revealed. As a consequence, he may even sometimes suffer in joy!

This is similar to what King David said,[5] “If (HaShem) tells me, ‘I do not desire you’, I willingly accept it. May He do with me whatever is good in His eyes.” Though he was the king of Israel about whom it was said, [6] “HaShem is with him” and that[7] “the Halacha always follows his opinion”, nevertheless, he was completely humble, so much so, that he said,[8] “I am a worm and not a man.” His humility was so great that he considered all others to be on a higher plane than himself, even his servants and maidservants, as in the verse,[9] “Even had I behaved more humbly than this and been degraded in my own eyes and among the maidservants, it would be an honor for me.”

He never considered himself to be on any level of attainment because of his tremendous self-negation, which is the receptacle for joy and, as known, a receptacle must be empty in order to receive. Likewise, a humble person receives joy specifically because he is empty of self. A self-absorbed person, on the other hand, is full of himself and incapable of receiving. We see, therefore, that humility causes joy.

This then is the meaning of the verse, “The humble will increase in joy of HaShem.” Though on the surface humility and joy are two separate matters that appear to be opposites, in reality humility causes joy.  In other words, not only is a humble person happy with his lot and satisfied with what he has, but more so, humility is the source of joy, because in their essence they are not opposites. The fact that on the surface they appear to be two separate matters bordering on opposites is only at first glance. In truth, the lowliness and humility of the humble is not because he is lowly by definition. The opposite is true, not only is he aware of his good qualities, but more so, he knows their importance. But since he recognizes the truth, he does not consider them to be attributable to himself nor does he derive self-satisfaction from them. On the contrary, he sets himself aside in order to attain higher levels. Moreover, a humble person is not weak. On the contrary, he actually is very strong in his convictions and everything he does is motivated by decisions founded on deep and settled thought.

[1] Isaiah 29:19

[2] Chagiga 16a

[3] Genesis 3:14, Talmud Yoma 75a

[4] Shaarei Teshuvah of Rabbi Yonah 2:27

[5] Samuel II 15:26

[6] Samuel I 16:18

[7] Sanhedrin 93b

[8] Psalms 22:7

[9] Samuel II 6:22

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