Updated: Feb 23
Is being stubborn a contradiction to humility? Can a humble person also have firm beliefs and take an unwavering stance on an issue he feelings strongly about? Can someone that has an unconventional opinion and refuses to go with the flow also be humble?
The answer, in typical Talmudic fashion, is it depends. It depends on what your definition of humility is, and it also depends on how you view stubbornness. If humility means that you allow yourself to be pushed around and never stand up for yourself, and stubbornness means that you don't take others into consideration and your opinions are all about yourself, then yes—they most certainly contradict each other.
But if being humble means to respect others and recognize that any talents you have are G-d given, and being stubborn expresses itself in a way that allows you to stick to your ideals despite the surrounding hostility, then in that case, not only do they not contradict each other—they complement and depend on each other for perfection.
This is a recurring theme in the Torah, specifically with regards to Moses who was considered the greatest Jewish leader of all time, yet at the same time the humblest person to have ever lived. It is also alluded to in the construction of the altar in the Temple’s courtyard.
Most of the fixtures in the Temple were fashioned from a combination of metals and wood. The menorah was made of pure gold; the ark, the showbread table, and the smaller incense altar, were wood plated in gold; and the washbasin was made fully of copper.
But the larger exterior altar, which was used for animal sacrifices, is sometimes referred to as an “earthen altar” and sometimes as a “copper altar.” This is because in addition to being a large wood structure plated in copper, it was filled with soil in order to provide stability.
Soil, being from the ground and lowly in nature, represents the internal reminder we must make for ourselves to keep our egos in check; to be cognizant of the fact that our accomplishments and gains in life are all gifts from Above and must not be taken for granted. The altar was filled with soil, to the point that it was even called the “earthen altar,” to remind us that our insides must always be filled with humility.
But the altar’s other title, the “copper altar,” tells a seemingly different story. The Hebrew word for copper is “nechoshet,” sharing a root with the word “nachush” which means “brazen.” The prophet Isaiah uses that term to describe the Jewish people’s stubbornness and potential for rebellion. Yet this same stubbornness, when channeled properly, can be utilized for good — for commitment and fortitude in the face of adversity.
The Jewish people’s stubbornness is what has enabled us to overcome waves of hostility throughout our history. Over centuries there has been no shortage of Jew-haters intent on destroying the Jewish nation both physically and spiritually. Yet, our brazen refusal to be taken down is why we’re still here; it’s why there is a Jewish nation today still serving as a beacon of light for the world and all its inhabitants.
The proper balance of stubbornness and humility is what provides stability to the altar of Jewish life, to our constant drive to be productive and make a difference, and can have an everlasting positive influence on the entire world.