Sunday, May 23, 2021

Portion Beha'alotechah: Humility/Anavah

From the time of his birth, at the beginning of the book of Exodus, until his death at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is the Torah’s pre-eminent character.  His relationship with both God and the people of Israel, throughout his forty years of leadership, is unparalleled.  Thus he is known as Moshe Rabbeynu, Moses, our Teacher.   Torah tells us that his prophetic wisdom and vision will never be equaled.

What was the source of Moses’ greatness?  Of all his many virtues, this week’s portion, B’ha-alotecha, suggests that the most important is his humility.  Thus the text teaches: “Moses was the most humble man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3)

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner comments on the correlation between Moses’ extraordinary humility and his spiritual mastery.  In his book, I’m God, You’re Not, Rabbi Kushner notes: “The goal of spiritual life is to get your ego out of the way.  Silence the incessant planning, organizing, running, manipulating, possessing, and processing that are the ineluctable redoubts of the ego.  Not because these activities are bad or wrong or even narcissistic. . . but because they preclude an awareness of the Divine.  To paraphrase the Talmud, God says, ‘There ain’t enough room in this world for your ego and Me.  You pick.’”

In other words, humility is at the heart of Moses’ greatness because it is an essential pre-requisite for our moral and spiritual development.  When we become too full of ourselves, we forfeit our connection to God, wisdom, and authentic relationships [which may, in the end, all be synonymous].  If we wish to grow as people and as Jews, we must free ourselves from our inflated self-importance and insistence that we are constantly “right.”

Two hundred years ago, the English poet John Keats expressed this same notion in his theory of “negative capability”, which he described as “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Keats points to Shakespeare and Coleridge as masters of this art, but we, as Jews, might look back farther, to Moses, as our guide.


Humility—in Hebrew, anavah—plays a central role in the Mussar tradition. Among the midot, it is foundational because as Rabbi Kushner notes, above, a person who lacks humility—who thinks they are better than others—cannot really learn and grow.  

But the Mussar masters remind us that it is critical 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.  Moses’s extraordinary humility does not preclude his assuming bold leadership; indeed, an essential part of it.  As the contemporary Mussar teacher Alan Morinis puts it in his beautiful book, Everyday Holiness: “No more than my space, no less than my space.”


Mussar Practice for this Week:

Write yourself a note with the phrase, “No more than my space, no less than my space” and carry it around with you, reading it regularly over the course of the day.  

What does the practice of humility look like for you in your work and/or family life?

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Portion Naso: Generosity/Nedivut

If you are poor, more money will usually increase your happiness.  It is cruel to live without adequate shelter, access to good food, a solid education and other basic necessities.  But studies consistently show once you have those things, an ever-expanding income does not translate into a more joyous life.  Yet all too often we spend our life accumulating things rather than giving them away.   The notion that we can achieve contentment by accruing a bunch of stuff is perhaps the most damning and destructive lie at the heart of unbridled laissez-faire capitalism.  As Ecclesiastes realized three thousand years ago, amassing anything—wealth, fame, power and even knowledge—is, in the end, pure vanity.  The Rabbis put it succinctly: “Who is happy?  Those who rejoice in their own portion.”  Or in Sheryl Crow’s insightful take on this wisdom: “It’s not getting what you want—it’s wanting what you’ve got.”

In this week’s portion, Naso—the longest in the Torah—we find another version of this lesson.  Numbers 5:8-9 teaches: “Any gift among the sacred donations that the Israelites offer shall be the priest’s.  And each shall retain his sacred donations: what a person gives to the priest shall be his.”  By the standard reading, “his” is a reference to the priest, who receives the gift.  But the Talmud (Brachot 63a) offers an alternative interpretation, in which “his” refers to the donor.  In other words, as the commentary in Etz Hayyim notes, it is only when we give something away that the gift, and the good deed that it represents, becomes permanently ours.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner captures the essence of this paradox in his path-breaking book, Honey from the Rock.  He writes of our central human challenge: “To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you.  That I get more when others give to others.  That if I hoard it, I lose it.  That if I give it away, I get it back.”

In other words, the things that matter most—love, kindness, wisdom—do not follow the rules of the “dismal science” of economics.  Paradoxically, it is only when we share what we have that we can gain and grow.


Our midah/character trait for this week is generosity—in Hebrew, nedivut.  Alan Morinis describes this path beautifully in his book Everyday Holiness:

God wants your heart.  Real generosity means not only giving something practical that will be of help to someone; it also means changing something in yourself.  Will your gift be just a thing, or will it be accompanied by joy, or empathy, or commitment, or love, or any of the other soul-traits that you cultivate in yourself?  When you undertake to give your heart as well, you change an element of yourself.  Each such act of generosity makes you into a more giving (or joyful, or empathic, or committed, or loving, or. . . ) person.  And when you change yourself, you change the world. 

Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

Do a different kind of generous act every day—one day with money, one day with time, one day with caring, one day with possessions, and the like.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Portion Bemidbar: Silence/Sh'tikah

To experience the Divine, we must learn to embrace silence.

This coming Sunday night we will celebrate Shavuot, which our Rabbis called z’man matan Torahteynu—the time of the giving of the Torah.  The festival marks the high point of our sacred origin story, when we stood together to hear Holy One’s word at Mount Sinai.

In some ways, it’s a unique moment in our mythic history—yet the Talmud suggests that revelation did not end there.  The Rabbis insist that God still speaks to us: “Each and every day the Divine Voice issues forth from Sinai” (Avot 6:2)

So if the Holy One continues to be in dynamic relationship with us, what was so special about the events commemorated by Shavuot?   A passage from the Midrash notes that the difference was the utter silence which preceded God’s Ten Utterances:

R. Abbahu said in the name of R. Yohannan: When the Holy One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl flew, no ox bellowed, not one of the angels said, “Holy, holy, holy!”  The sea did not roar, creatures did not speak—the whole world was hushed into breathless silence; it was then that the voice went forth: “I am the Eternal your God.”

In other words, as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes, “The reason Sinai is so special and the reason why we are unable to hear Torah all the time is because the noise and static of this world drown out the sound of God’s voice.  Only at the time of the ‘giving of the Torah’ did God ‘silence the roar.’ At Sinai we could hear what had been there (and continues to be here) all along.” 

Often, as we imagine the giving of the Torah, we think of the pyrotechnics: thunder and lightning and fire.  But the key ingredient for hearing the Divine is, in fact, silence.  Elijah learns this when the Holy One pays him a visit in a cave where he is hiding on Mt. Carmel.  

As it is written, “God passed by and a mighty wind split the mountains—but God was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake—but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire—but God was not in the fire.  And after the fire, a still, small voice.” 

In today’s high tech, 24/7 culture with its endless distractions, Shavuot offers a timely reminder that Holiness does not dwell amidst the sound and the fury; it reveals itself subtly in the calm that follows, when the noise dies down.  The still, small voice continues to speak to us, everywhere and always.  But most of the time, we do not hear it because our world is too loud and we are moving too quickly. 

Perhaps that is why the watchword of our faith is Shema—Listen!  This is our Jewish mission: to be still, to listen to one another, to our own better angels, and to hear in them the whispering voice of the Holy One.  The Psalmist declares, “Be still and know that I am God.”  The corollary to his teaching is both obvious and difficult: until we learn to embrace the silence, God remains out of reach.


Our midah/character trait for this week is silence—in Hebrew, shtikah.  While some people are naturally inclined to quietude, most of us find it different to still both our tongues and our minds.  Yet this is essential to learning.  As the great medieval Spanish Jewish poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol taught: In seeking wisdom, the first step is silence, the second listening, the third remembering, the fourth practicing, and the fifth teaching others. 

Mussar Practice for this Week (from Every Day, Holy Day)

Find at least ten minutes every day when you will be silent and seek inner stillness.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Portion Behar-Bechukotai: Emet/Truth

Self-deception is the root of much ill.

This week’s double portion, Behar-Bechukotai, completes the book of Leviticus.  Much of it is devoted to the sabbatical and jubilee years, which provide the land—and those who work it—with a prolonged rest period and serve as a reminder that, in the end, the earth belongs to God, rather than us.  It is in this context that we find a verse admonishing against shady real estate deals: “Do not deceive one another but revere your God, for I, the Eternal, am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17)

But the Hasidic Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Przysucha shifts the focus of this verse with a brilliantly incisive bit of commentary.  He taught: “Do not deceive anyone—not even yourself.”

Rabbi Bunem points to a profound psychological truth here, for of all the multifarious forms of deception in which we engage, none are so harmful as the ways we deliberately mislead ourselves.  

Why do we do this?  Often, to avoid pain.  It can be terribly difficult to face the truth about poor choices that we have made and in which we have become invested and enmeshed.  Even worse, we deceive ourselves in order to rationalize our doing things that, deep down, we recognize are wrong.  I have always believed that almost all of our moral shortcomings are failures of willpower rather than knowledge.  We know when we are transgressing.  Yet we engage in self-deception to justify our misdeeds.  We make excuses and conjure up mitigating circumstances—and, more damaging yet, eventually can come to believe our rationalizations.  Our Rabbis called this unfortunate propensity for self-deception the yetzer ha-ra, the Evil Inclination.  It is a huge barrier to transformative insight and personal growth.

If we wish to become better, wiser, more compassionate people, we must begin by being brutally honest with ourselves.  This sort of clear-eyed appraisal is arduous, indeed—but it is the only way forward.

“Do not deceive anyone.”  Even—or especially—yourself.


Truth—in Hebrew, emet—is our midah/character trait for this week.  The word begins with the letter alef, and ends with taf—the first and last letters in the Hebrew alphabet.  For our Rabbis, this teaches that the world begins and ends with truth.  In his book Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis reminds us that we are all capable of seeing past deception, citing the words of Mussar teacher Eliyahu Dressler: 

Even after the desire of one’s own heart have persuaded one to accept the false way as true, they still know in their heart of heart that the truth path is “truer” than the other one. . . . Every human being us has the faculty of determining in their own heart where the real truth lies.

 Mussar Practice for this Week (from The Mussar Torah Commentary)

Set an intention to notice every time your instinct is to distort the truth in some way.  When you notice that instinct arising, take a moment to ask yourself if there is an element of hidden truth that is yearning to be noticed.