Middah of the Month: Humility
As discussed from the pulpit on Kol Nidre evening, we (the Rabbi and President) are launching a Mussar program at Beth Shalom entitled: “Middah of the Month.” Mussar is a Jewish ethical discipline devoted to the cultivation of positive character traits known as middot(singular: middah). Each month, a different middahwill be featured in the print bulletin, at worship services, on the website, at Board meetings, and elsewhere. The Middahfor October is Humility (Anavah).
Alan Morinis, the founder of the American Mussar Institute, writes in his book Everyday Holiness: “Humility is the first soul-trait to work on, because it entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of your place. Without this accurate self-awareness, nothing else in your inner life will come into focus.” Humility entails a right-sized appreciation of self: neither grandiose, nor self-effacing, but in between.
People who flaunt themselves are often compensating for low self-esteem. However, if you feel right with yourself inside, then you can assert yourself in quiet ways without being arrogant or overbearing. In our tradition, Moses supremely exemplifies the proper deployment of ego. The Torah describes him as “the humblest person on Earth,” and yet, as a leader, he doesn’t shy away from resisting his opponents and upbraiding his followers when necessary.
Here’s a completely hypothetical example in my own role as Rabbi. Let’s say that a member were to cast aspersions on a decision I made and accuse me of pride, and let’s say that I were incapable of explaining my actions without breaking another person’s confidentiality. I could “take the high road” and not defend myself at all. I could react indignantly with: “I’m the Rabbi, and you have to do whatever I say.” (By the way, Mussar teaches that anger almost always results from lack of humility.) Or, I might say something like: “I’m sorry you feel that way, but I have valid reasons that I unfortunately am not at liberty to share with you.” That would be an intermediate response.
As members of this holy community, Congregation Beth Shalom, we each have to decide when to speak up and when to keep our thoughts to ourselves. On the one hand, the Torah exhorts us with: “you shall reproach your kinsfolk,” and on the other hand it immediately goes on to say: “but you shall not incur guilt because of it.” (Leviticus 19:17) The qualifying clause is interpreted to mean: “bring criticism to the other person’s attention in a considered, considerate manner, lest you yourself incur guilt by disrespecting, demeaning or shaming her.”
The last word (for the present) on humility comes from opera. I happen to be studying Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in preparation for IU’s upcoming production. At one point, the reverend mother says to Blanche: “unhappiness is not when others have disdain for you but only when you have disdain for yourself.” (Her counsel parallels the Jewish idiom expressed in the Torah service: “not on the opinions of mortals do I rely, but on God alone.”) Only it sounds so much better in French! Le malheur, ma fille, n'est pas d'être méprisée, mais seulement de se mépriser soi-même.