We and our leaders must remember there is great power in humility

Like the wave of a giant tsunami, news stories about Russian election meddling, government shutdowns, partisan sniping in Congress, sexual misconduct, protest marches, tweet storms, racism, immigration fights and more are sweeping over us morning, noon and night.

Amid charge and countercharge, opponents all claim the mantle of virtue and righteousness. “I’m right, and you’re wrong” seems to be the prevailing view of opponents on the left and right across America, the mightiest nation on Earth.

But then again, maybe we aren’t nearly as mighty as we think.

We are a weak nation when it comes to the most important kind of strength – the kind that can save us all. Ever wonder why God chose Moses? Because, as the Bible puts it: “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the Earth.”

The lesson? There is great power in humility.

Each day, during each tempting, prideful moment may we and our leaders be great enough to stoop low.

Of course, humility is difficult to achieve. It comes at the expense of pride. Consider a certain pastor who received a beautiful note from a woman in his congregation complimenting him on his preaching and comparing him with the great prophets.

“Pastor,” she finished by writing, “I think you are one of the greatest preachers of all time.”

Feeling good about the note, the pastor showed it to his wife and asked: “Sweetheart, how many great preachers do you suppose there actually are in the ministry?”

The pastor’s wife looked down at the card, looked up at her husband and replied: “One less than you think, dear.”

In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Yehuda Nesia argues that the character of a generation reflects that of its leader. Others say just the opposite – that the character of the leader reflects that of his or her generation. But however you look at it, the sages believed that we get the leaders we deserve.

If we get the leaders we deserve, what does that say about us as much as them?

The Hebrew word for Egypt comes from the word “narrow.” God through his humble servant Moses lead the Israelites from the narrow confines of slavery, and through a narrow sliver of land between a parted sea into a vast, open desert where they found true freedom and faith.

Given the coarseness of our nation’s politics and culture, the sages would remind us that the plague of darkness that descended over Egypt, that narrow place, was “a darkness so dark that people could not recognize the humanity in each other.”

The prophet Zechariah would shout to us across 100 generations: “’Not by might and not by power, but by God’s spirit shall people live in peace.”

Might and power alone mean little if uninformed by the spirit of God, by the spirit of a genuine peace that comes from a genuine respect for the other.

I often remember a driving lesson with my dad during which another car merged without yielding to my right of way. I sped up. “Slow down!” my dad shouted.

“But I have the right of way,” I shouted back.

My father told me to pull over, then looked me straight in the eyes and said: “Don’t be dead right.”

Doubt is so important. We should doubt that our side of the story is the only side, doubt that our perspective is the only perspective.

“Abolish all doubt, and what's left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction,” says author Lesley Hazleton, who wrote the biography of Muhammad.

Great power without humility is not greatness. It is Pharaoh, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, bin Laden, Assad. It is the belittling, harassing boss, the abusive parent, the cold, indifferent spouse. It is brothers and sisters, parents and children, who do not speak, friendships of so many years blown apart.

One of the saddest days of my life was when I had to attend an arbitration between my family and my uncle in the midst of my father’s worsening dementia and the sign on the conference room door read “Leder vs. Leder.”

If we want to heal the wounds in our family, friendships and nation, then let’s inject some doubt into our self-righteousness. Only doubt enables us to consider: “Maybe it’s me. Maybe she is right. Maybe he does have a point. Maybe I was unkind. Maybe I was too severe, insecure, self-righteous, proud, and aggressive. Maybe I was wrong.”

There are so many broken families, so many broken hearts, so many times we feel like we live in a broken country. Why?  Because not enough of us reach deep enough into the pocket of humility that says, “I am but dust and ash. I am no more special than you. I am not perfect. I am not the center of the universe. I am not without flaws and fault, foolishness and doubt.” Real love, real friendship, real leadership is about that pocket of humility.

When I watch protests on the news I often hear the chant: “No justice. No peace.”  I think the protestors have it backwards. What we need is real peace in order to create real social justice.

And what is real peace? Is it merely not disagreeing? Or is real peace something greater than the lack of differences? Of course it is. Real peace is an ethic – a marriage, a family, a workplace, a city, a country, and a world that humbly values, respects and honors different points of view and different human journeys. Humility before God, our loved ones and our fellow citizens is the only hope for real peace. 

There is a beautiful old story about a student who came to a sage and said: “In the olden days there were those like Moses who saw the face of God. Why don’t they anymore?”

The wise man replied, “Because nowadays no one can stoop low enough.”

Each day, during each tempting, prideful moment may we and our leaders be great enough to stoop low.