Humility at a Time of the Coronavirus

By Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

The other morning, I bought coffee at a local store owned by a Muslim friend of mine, and while schmoozing with him – if that is what Muslims and Jews do together – another member of his mosque entered his small franchise and the three of us – mindful, of course, of the need of maintaining our 6-foot distance from one another – spoke of the subject of the day, which was – of course – our common struggle against the coronavirus.

The important aspect of this conversation centered around the fact that as human beings – as a nation – as a world – we have been awed, pushed, controlled, and angered by a microbe.

That a micro-organism can affect the human body is not a wonder to those of us who understand and accept the principles of modern science. The truly unbelievable aspect of this current situation is that, as a species, we still are not humble enough to acknowledge both our human frailty and the need to respect the power that nature still holds over us.

Why do some of us believe that we are stronger than a germ which was unknown to us only four months ago, and that can clearly take a life? Why is it that we cannot bow to our human ignorance, accept our imperfections, and then move on to address head-on the search for palliative relief, a cure, and prevention?

I sometimes think that humanity has grown too full of itself, smug and certain, and we – like teenagers whose frontal lobe has not yet matured – believe that we’re invincible. So, perhaps one antidote to the growing pains of this maturation process is a good dose of humility.

Upon hearing the word ‘humility’, one might say that being humble forces a person to become a groveling, subhuman creature living in the dust of the footsteps of others. But this is not the Jewish understanding of humility.

On the contrary: Judaism advocates that we place ourselves on a pretty high plain; the rabbis of old believed that humanity was – on the ladder of life – only one rung below the angels. So, when we think of humility and how to achieve it, what does this look like? Where do we place ourselves?

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-statehood Israel, said that “humility is associated with spiritual perfection. When humility brings forth depression it is defective; when it is genuine, it inspires joy, courage and inner dignity.”

So, humility in the proper measure should bring forth not feelings of lowliness or inferiority, but rather true and healthy self-esteem for oneself, and respect for the place of others around us.

And the same can be said of arrogance and self-importance. Humility in its proper application should bring us down from hubris and haughtiness, and instruct us that each entity on this planet has its place and that we must respect it.

The teachers of modern-day Mussar say it succinctly: “No more than my place and no less than my space.” Meaning that we are worthy enough to take up a certain amount of space in the world, and we can rejoice in that. As creatures only a ‘little less than divine’, we have the sanction to exist, grow, learn, and accomplish many things. At the same time, we should be mindful of human limitations, as well as the tendency to grow too full of ourselves, and not take up more space than we should.

Let us move forward to accept our place in life, and then to humbly – but with intent – bring forth the best in humanity to find relief and a cure to all our current problems.

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, DD, MAHL earned a BA from California State University, Northridge, in radio-television broadcast management and then participated in a Jewish students’ institute and worked as a television production assistant in Israel. He earned a master’s degree in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University and worked for seven years at Jewish Federations in Buffalo, St. Louis, and Houston. He then entered the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving his master’s degree in Hebrew letters in 1991 and rabbinic ordination in 1992. Rabbi Biatch served pulpits in Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Alexandria, Virginia, and in Glendale, California, before joining Temple Beth El in 2005.

Disclaimer: The From Our Rabbis feature seeks to provide a platform representing the diversity of our community clergy. The views, information, or opinions expressed in the From Our Rabbis articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federation of Madison.