True Humility

This week’s Dvar Torah was edited from one written by Dr. Alan Morinis, founder of The Mussar Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to nurturing personal growth, spiritual development, and ethical mindfulness through Mussar, an ancient Jewish tradition.

Photo by Laura Seaman on Unsplash

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This Dvar Torah is specially dedicated this week in memory of Marshall Baltuch, Fischel Moshe ben Gedalia Z”L, a past Director of the Miami March of the Living and the founding executive director of the Friends of the March of the Living. Marshall dedicated his life to serving the South Florida Jewish Community in many, many capacities for over 60 years and will be greatly missed.

Our parsha for this week – Beha’alotecha – is a treasury of teachings that call out to be illuminated in the light of Mussar.


Mussar is a Jewish spiritual practice that provides practical guidance on how to live an ethical and meaningful life, based on the idea that cultivating inner virtues can help people improve themselves.


I want to focus on the teaching about humility (anava) we find in B’Midbar / Numbers 12:3 that compels our attention above all the other wonderful elements in this parsha.


The verse says:

וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃


And the man Moses was very humble, more so than any other human being on the face of the earth.


At first glance, it seems hard to understand how the man who stepped away from his privileged life in the palace to support his enslaved people, who had the strength to confront Pharaoh to demand that he let the people leave Egypt… could be such an exemplar of the trait of humility.


Meek? Diffident? Mild?


If we have difficulty assessing Moses as humble, that’s because many of us carry around a flawed understanding of the trait of humility.


We may have unconsciously internalized a definition of humility that derives from Christianity or secular philosophy that sees humility as “knowing your weaknesses.”


That’s simply not the Jewish view.


That distinction came alive for me when I attended a conference on the topic of humility that was held in Oklahoma in 2017…


While being “small in one’s own eyes” actually conforms to the contemporary and Christian-derived definition of humility, in the [Jewish] Mussar view, proper humility involves acknowledging not just your weaknesses but also your strengths, and then not taking pride in those strengths.


As the conference wore on and I kept hearing people say in one way or another that humility equates to awareness of your deficiencies, whenever someone used the phrase, “know your weaknesses,” I would call out from the audience “and also your strengths!”


It became a bit of a comedy routine, but I have reason to think the message penetrated because when the proceeds of the conference were published, my contribution was included as chapter 1.


Now, I want to assure you that I take no pride in the fact that my chapter was placed first in the volume, because I know that whatever the editors found of value in my contribution derived from things I had learned from my teachers in the 1,100-year-old Mussar tradition.


I genuinely believe that I offered something that was valuable to the conference because my perspective was broader, and perhaps even wiser, than the general consensus.


But I have no business taking pride in that wisdom because it wasn’t my creation. I learned it from my teachers.


Rabbi Yitzchak Abohav, the 14th century Spanish author of the Mussar text, Menorat HaMaor, for example, makes this point in his discussion of the humility that our parsha attributes to Moses:


“He is humble and does not take pride in the attributes in which people usually take pride, such as rulership, wisdom and prophecy. And although he [Moses] had all the good traits that there are in the world, he did not take pride in any of them.”


Moses knew his greatness.


He didn’t deny that he was excellent in certain qualities, but that didn’t mean he allowed himself to swell with pride for having those traits.


Facts are facts, and pride is a choice.


I’ve often cited the story about Rabbi Chatzkel Abramsky, a well-known leader of the Jewish community in England, who was once called to testify in court.


His lawyer asked him, “Rabbi Abramsky, is it true that you are the greatest living Jewish legal authority in Europe?” to which the rabbi replied, “Yes. That is true.”


At that point the judge interrupted and said, “Rabbi Abramsky, is that not rather haughty on your part? I thought that the laws and ethics of your people teach you to be humble.”


To which Rabbi Abramsky responded, “Yes, your honour, I know we are taught to be humble. But what can I do? I am under oath.”


Facts are facts, and pride is simply a choice…


When you think about it, you can easily see that being good at something does not justify any of the feelings of pride that people are prone to adopting and that the Mussar tradition cautions us to avoid in favor of humility.


For example, if you are good at basketball, it is likely that you are tall, have good hand-eye coordination, and are athletic.


But what are we? All those qualities reflect the kind of body (including brain) that you have, and what justifies taking pride in the genetic inheritance that is the major factor in giving character to your body?


Did you make the genes that resulted in you being good at basketball? Did you grow or provide the food that nourished your development as a child?


What are you good at?


It is not arrogant to acknowledge the truth of your own capabilities and accomplishments.


Is it gardening? Child-rearing? Litigation? Playing the violin?


Surely you excel at something. What is it? Now look at the factors that went into creating that excellence.


Did your accomplishment require an education that someone else (like your parents, or the taxpayers) paid for?


Can you take credit for fashioning the brain that gives you articulate speech, or coordinates your hand to draw the bow across the strings?


Is your ability to tell red from blue that comes in handy for planning the flower arrangement in the garden something you invented?


And even if you did invent something, how many prior inventions had to have happened for you to accomplish what you did?


Humility does not equate to diffidence or meekness.


Go on, excel. And accept ownership of that excellence. But then follow the example of Moses and don’t leap from awareness of the truth to arrogance.


There is no justification for doing that, and it is spiritually harmful.


Facts are facts, and pride is simply a choice.

Shabbat Shalom