This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter. The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition. As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.
This week’s portion, Noach, concludes with the succinct tale of the Tower of Babel. When the narrative commences, with Genesis 11, “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” By its conclusion, just a few verses later, humanity is dispersed all over the world, with each nation speaking its own language, unable to understand its neighbors.
What is the human failing that carries such profound consequences? Overweening haughtiness. God scatters humanity and confounds our speech in response to our conceit, as expressed in our desire to erect a tower in the center of a large city, with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves. The building is a tangible symbol of our arrogance.
Humility—in Hebrew, anavah—plays a central role in the Mussar tradition. Among the midot, it is foundational because a person who lacks humility—who thinks they are better than others—cannot really learn and grow. It is no coincidence that humility is the only character trait that Torah directly attributes to Moses, describing him as “the humblest person on the face of the earth.” Our Sages add that a person who is too full of him (or her) self does not leave room for God to dwell.
But it is important to avoid confusing humility with humiliation, which is all too common a mistake. Being humble does not mean being a self-debasing nobody; real humility is, instead, grounded in healthy self-esteem. As with most midot, the goal is to maintain a proper balance between arrogance and self-loathing. Humility is about occupying the proper amount of space in one’s life: stepping up when called upon to do so, while also leaving room for others. As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my place.”
After God scatters the generation of the Tower of Babel, our portion ends with a long genealogy listing the ten generations from Noah to Shem to Abraham. Most of the people in that list are long-forgotten, but their legacies live on in the enduring story of the Jewish people. Each of them had a role to play, a time to step forward, a space to occupy. So, too, for each of us: when we live with humility, we do not always see the fruits of our labors, but this does not make them any less real.
Mussar Practice for this Week:
Write yourself a note with the phrase, “No more than my space, no less than my place” and carry it around with you, reading it regularly over the course of the day.
What does the practice of humility look like in your work and/or family life?