D’var Torah – The Quality of Anavah, Humility

We are all familiar with the Biblical story of Moses, who we were re-introduced to in last week’s parashah Shemot, and whose leadership and character we continue to see develop through the end of Devarim. Shemot chapter 4 reminds us that Moshe was really not interested in the job of freeing and leading the Israelites from Egypt. Over several verses, he pleads with Gd not to appoint him. He asks a few times until Gd finally gets angry and promises that Aaron will be at his side. Moses is famous for his humility, or anavah, but is it humility or a lack of confidence that we witness here?

Reading Parashat Shemot and this week’s parashah, Vaera, I see a Moses who is self-doubting and insecure. Later in our narrative, though, the Torah tells us “Moses was a very humble man, more so than anyone on earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). Several years after the Exodus, Moshe is assertive and self-assured, yet modest and unpretentious. How did that transformation occur? I think that’s a text study too detailed to examine here, but it is clear that humility is a process. It requires us to acknowledge both our best and worst attributes. The truly humble individual can recognize their faults, while still appreciating their most positive traits.

I have been thinking a lot about humility, especially given the tragic events last week here in DC. What would history books say about January 6, 2021 if anavah had been demonstrated by more of our leaders? Is anavah an innate trait that some of us “just get” or something every individual can work to acquire? Is it possible to demonstrate confidence, take pride in our accomplishments, inspire others, and still be humble? As a parent and educator, I also think about how we instill anavah within our children and campers while still nurturing a high self-esteem. How do celebrate one team’s winning performance on Yom Sport but not rub the win in their opponents’ faces? How do we rejoice when our child wins a high award from school without coming off as overly boastful? Are we as adults willing to back down from our convictions to consider a friend’s perspective? Humility is a hard quality to perfect and it can be a balancing act, but I believe it’s achievable.

The Polish Hasidic master, Rabbi Simcha Bunim, is attributed with teaching that everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each. When one is feeling discouraged, low, or depressed, reach into one pocket, and there, find the words: “Bishvili nivra ha-olam – The world was created for me” (Sanhedrin 37b). But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the other pocket, and find the words: “V’anochi afar v’efer – I am but dust and ashes” (Bereshit 18:27). Rabbi Bunim recognizes that there are occasions when it is appropriate to pat ourselves on the back, boast a little, and take pride in our accomplishments. But we also know, like Moses, there are times when we must recognize we each have limitations and sometimes it is best to put the needs or desires of others before our own.

This Shabbat and in the weeks ahead, as we reflect upon the qualities that made Moshe Rebbeinu a revered leader and as we continue to watch history unfold, may we strive for greatness coupled with an increased sense of humility.  Shabbat Shalom.