Rebbe Nachman’s Four Levels of Humility
Rebbe Nachman teaches us that there are four levels of humility:
Level 1: A person should humble himself before those who are greater than him.
In many ways, this is the easiest level to get to. It’s very easy to feel ‘smaller’ when confronted with a Torah genius like the late Rav Ovadia Yosef, zt’l, or before the saintliness of a tzaddik like Rav Levi Yitzhak Bender, or the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l.
Closer to home, we’re also surrounded by people who give much more charity than we do, learn far more Torah than we do, and spend much more time wrapped-up in working on themselves and trying to serve Hashem.
So feeling some humility around people like this is a great place to start, because for most of us, those feelings should come naturally.
Level 2: A person should humble himself before those who are on the same level as him.
By level two, we’re already starting to struggle a little bit. Trying to honor your chevruta (study partner), or your friend, or your colleague at work, or even your spouse or your sibling – that’s already much harder.
Our egos are already starting to complain and groan a little bit, if we try to see the greatness in those every-day people who surround us.
What, I should respect that guy?! Sure, he gets to shul before me every day but he doesn’t hold down a full-time job like I do!
What, I should humble myself before my neighbor?! Yes, her home is spotless but that’s because she has a live-in cleaner and an unhealthy obsession with germs…
Our egos often struggle tremendously with the idea that we should respect those points of greatness in our ‘ordinary’ acquaintances, so we’re already into an area of real inner-work, here.
But there’s still more to do:
Level 3: A person should humble himself before those who are less distinguished than him.
Now, our egos are really complaining.
We were mostly OK with respecting all those big Rabbanim, and the millionaire entrepreneurs, and the pillars of the community who keep all the schools and mikvas and charitable organizations going, and the balabusta homemakers with 15 children and three full-time jobs.
We were struggling a bit to ‘lower ourselves’ when it came to our peers, and to respect their opinions, efforts, accomplishments and struggles. But this?! This is already reaching the realms of impossibility!
How are we meant to not feel so smug and superior when we meet people who earn less than we do, or who don’t live the lifestyle we have, or who learn less Torah, or who keep less mitzvot?
It’s human nature to want to feel ‘bigger’ than someone else, and when we objectively seem to have more success, better character traits, or more abilities than another person, our innate arrogance wants us to recognize that fact, however subtly.
But Rabbenu tells us: Even if that must be uprooted. Even that tendency must be overcome, if you really want to get to the level of bringing people back to God, and spreading peace in the world, via your Torah learning. And this isn’t even the hardest part of the equation. That’s still to come.
Level 4: A person should hold himself to be even lower than the level he’s actually at.
Just because you regularly spend six hours talking to Hashem, or go to the field every day to cry out to Him, don’t think that makes you something special.
Just because you finish the whole Shas every two months, or regularly let homeless people sleep in your spare room, or buy orphaned barmitzvah boys their first pair of tefillin – don’t let all that stuff go to your head.
Yes, you may be doing some of the things that the true Tzaddikim do, and that’s certainly something that you’d be entitled to feel proud of.
But – Rabbenu warns us – as soon as you feel that smidgen of pride about whatever level you’ve achieved in life, even spiritually, your ability to bring other Jews closer to Hashem will evaporate.
So hold yourself lower than you actually are.
Even if you are a tzaddik, even if you truly are a holy individual, don’t for one moment let yourself think that, because then you’ll lose the huge opportunity you’ve been given to bring other Jews back to God.
This is probably the hardest level of all.
But a person who strives to attain it, and who succeeds in breaking their arrogance and egotistical feelings of superiority – that person can bring the whole world back to God.
Adapted and translated from the ‘Ohr HaDaat’ newsletter by Rav Ofer Erez, #113