Heroic Humility – An Uncommon Common Virtue


Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts. We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center. So we lost our center and have to find it again.

– Anais Nin

An American humorist once quipped, “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t.”   Beginning with psychologist Carl Jung in the 1920’s, however, and promulgated by personality tests today, the theory is that there are two kinds of people: you’re either an “introvert” or an “extrovert.”

Introversion and Extroversion in the Torah

This concept is nothing new, however, as these personality categories are the very archetypes of our forefathers, Abraham and Isaac. Abraham, the prototypical extrovert, is associated with the characteristic of “chesed,” which means “kindness.” As the father of outreach, Abraham’s kindness, which manifested as an outward expression of love and benevolence to humanity, was directed externally.   On the other side of the scale is his son Isaac, the prototypical introvert, to whom is attributed the trait of “gevurah,” meaning “strength,” expressed as being inner-directed, reserved, and self-disciplined, even to a fault.

As any child of a super charismatic parent knows, growing up in the shadows is hard. Part of that is due to our worship of the extrovert. As Susan Cain, author of the book, “Quiet: The Power of an Introvert in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” notes: “A widely held, but rarely articulated, belief in our society is that the ideal self is bold, alpha, gregarious. Introversion is viewed somewhere between disappointment and pathology.”

Accordingly, following in super parent’s larger-than-life footsteps is almost impossible.   How many times does an innovative and groundbreaking venture fail, because the next generation is unable to keep the vision alive? And yet, it is Isaac, ostensibly the first “nerd” in recorded history, who in fact held it all together, and who was responsible for transmitting and promulgating Judaism to the next generation.

The Legacy of Isaac

In the few stories we know about Isaac, he was never the driver of the story.   The only narrative where Isaac was the main active protagonist was in connection with Abraham. After Abraham had died, the Philistines stopped up the wells Abraham had dug. Here, we read the story of Isaac digging up those old wells, and when the Philistines filled them in again, Isaac re-dug them yet again, until he ultimately prevailed. Like that’s a big deal? Actually, yes it is.

Toldos,” which means “generations,” starts out with the words: “ These are the generations of Isaac.” And yet, the very next sentence is not about Isaac’s children, but about Isaac’s father, Abraham. Typically, toldos refers to progeny; sometimes, however, it means one’s legacy.   In this case, the Torah directs us to look backward to understand the import of Isaac’s lasting legacy.

When to Cultivate and When to Integrate

Rabbi David Foreman, a popular commentator on Torah topics writes:

Isaac is about picking up the torch, about consolidating Abraham’s legacy, about re-digging the wells to keep his father’s vision alive one more generation. If he can do that, the vision is real, it has roots; it will survive. Sometimes your job in life is to innovate, sometimes your job in life is to consolidate. Consolidating isn’t as flashy as innovating; it takes great humility to focus your life on striking roots for a great idea that has been innovated by someone else. But that humility is heroic, and that perhaps was the legacy of Isaac.

In a society immersed in individualism, focused on the self, and permeated with idealizing the extrovert, we would do well at times to emulate Isaac’s humility and value the quiet hero. When we dig wells, we turn inward to reveal that which is hidden. When we tap into our deepest meaning, our inner strengths, and significant values, we can create the type of legacy that we would want to survive us.