As is typically the case, the nomination of cabinet members comes with a ceremony hosted by the American president in the White House rose garden. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter took the podium to introduce four Jewish nominees, including Phillip Klutznick for the position of Secretary of Commerce. Klutznick was not only a successful businessman, he held a number of important posts with leading Jewish and Zionist organizations. In glowing terms Carter spoke of his accomplishments and worthiness of the office. Asked to respond, Klutznick said that if the president of the United States says such complimentary things about him, who is he to disagree! It was a remarkable demonstration of real humility. Klutznick could not deny that he was an accomplished man. Doing so would be a lie. But to readily acknowledge his accomplishments would be akin to bragging and that he would not do.
Humility is the virtue most associated with Moses who would not respond to the spurious personal attacks against him made by his brother and sister. Instead, he remained silent (Numbers 12:1-3). But the Talmud takes the idea of humility to a different level. According to Rabbi Yohanan, “Wherever you find the might of the Holy One, Blessed be He, you find his humility” (Megillah 31a). The examples that prove this claim, however, are not about remaining silent in the face of criticism or refusing to accept a compliment. Instead, the examples are those of God defending the widow and orphans and comforting the contrite. As Professor Sara Ronis puts it: “Humility here isn’t a downplaying of God’s accomplishments but God’s commitment to justice for those who are vulnerable.”
The connection between self-deprecation and empathy is not at all far-fetched. Those who minimize personal accomplishments are those who realize that success is dependent upon a confluence of factors, some of which are out of personal control. While the successful businessperson can attribute part of his or her success to good judgment and initiative, other factors also come into play: economic trends, changing consumer needs, government policies, and the like. It would be ludicrous to think otherwise. And those who see that personal success is partly due to good luck realize personal failure may be attributable to bad luck. Given this realization, one can only feel empathy for those who may be just as talented and capable but did not enjoy a route to success. And empathy, as understood by Rabbi Yohanan, motivates a response.
How much better society would be if humility were the rule, rather than the exception.