Look Who Thinks He’s Nothing

So there is a joke you probably know on the topic of humility. The chief rabbi of the synagogue at Yom Kippur is beating his breast and crying, tears running down his cheeks “I’m nothing, Lord! I’m nothing! I’m absolutely nothing!” Next to him the chief donor to the synagogue, a wealthy banker kneels down and hits himself on the chest and yells “I’m nothing! God forgive me for thinking I’m something. I’m not. I’m nothing!” Whereupon Shlomo a poor man who sweeps the synagogue out after services and halls trash gets down on his knees and yells “I’m nothing! I’m nothing.” The rabbi observes this, elbows the banker and whispers “Look who thinks he’s nothing.”

So we don’t want to be the rabbi in this story. We don’t want to brag about our humility for the obvious reason that bragging about humility shows that we are not humble. People who truly think they are nothing don’t look down on other people for thinking that they’re nothing.

But how do we avoid being the rabbi in this story?

We don’t do it by telling the story it seems to me. Because if we have the story in our back pocket and any time anybody extolls the virtue of humbleness we tell the story then we are bragging about how we are not fake-humble. And if we are bragging about how we are not fake-humble, that we know about how to avoid the pitfalls of fake humility, then we are bragging about being genuinely humble. And we are like the rabbi in the story.

On the other hand if we never tell the story or use the idea in the story how do we point out to people not to be fake humble? How do we teach ourselves and others the value of humility? If nobody makes distinctions between true and fake humility (as exemplified by the telling of the story) then how does the practice of humility endure.

It’s a problem!


2 thoughts on “Look Who Thinks He’s Nothing

  1. The issue came up at my company about 10 years ago when we were doing some development for federal government agencies. The government employees found a few of our consultants arrogant and abrasive: not entirely without justification, they had the “smartest guy in the room syndrome.” I told our CEO that the key to humility was not to think less of ourselves, but to think more of others: to show respect for their abilities and accomplishments rather than getting so puffed up about our own.

    IMHO, there’s no inconsistency between humility and healthy self-esteem. If we give proper respect to others, it keeps our own accomplishments in perspective.

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