Anavah – Humility

Humility Visualization

First, let me say that I am no expert in mussar. And in all honesty, I haven’t really even started. Right now I am only exploring the middot (character traits – middah, singular) that ring out to me as I prepare myself for the actual practice of mussar. From there I will pick the thirteen which I feel to be most applicable in my life and begin to focus on them one week at a time, journaling about my journey. However, from what I have read in Everyday Holiness, almost every middah hangs on anavah (humility). According to Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, in his book Duties of the Heart (as quoted by Morinis in Everyday Holiness), “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.” And it makes sense. Once I learned the Jewish perspective on anavah, humility, I became drawn to it, realizing my deep lack of understanding of this character trait, as well as my deficiency of its possession. Here’s why…

When the word humility is mentioned, what comes to mind? Too many times our working definition of humility is self-abasement. My new, working definition of humility comes from Morinis in Everyday Holiness. My paraphrase is as follows:

Humility is occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little.

I think this is the best definition I’ve ever heard. It makes sense on so many levels. When we break down a character trait into a definition such as this, we are able to truly define it’s parameters, rather than it being some ethereal, elusive non-tangible. Let’s explore this definition for a moment.

If humility is “occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little,” it’s obvious the result when we occupy too much space. At the minimum this is pride, and at its extreme, narcissism. We become so wrapped up in ourselves that the boundaries between us and others is unseen. We quickly overstep those boundaries and invade someone else’s space, whether physically, socially or verbally. One example Morinis gave that I thought was really good was in regard to speech:

“…when someone shares a piece of news with you, do you come right back with your own concerns, filling the space they’ve opened, or do you make room to follow up what the other person has introduced?” 1

I have had this flaw as long as I can remember. I remember when a friend of mine first brought it to my attention. His bringing it to my attention hurt me, but it was a much needed exposure of a flaw in my character that brought it to the surface in order that I could deal with it, and not be oblivious to it. However, since I was only made aware of this, and not given any tools for tikkun (repair / undoing), I still have not overcome in this. Now, I have passed it on to my children. And seeing this blemish magnified in them, it has set off internal alarms that I did not understand until recently. Having a proper definition of this middah with well-defined parameters helps me not only to better identify the breach in our family composition, but gives me a more solid means by which to correct it.

On the opposite extreme is not occupying enough space. If we occupy too little space, we are not fulfilling our God-given role in the world. It is not stepping up to the plate for which you were created. Hillel tells us,

“In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.” (Avot 2:6)

Remember, “Birth is G‑d saying you matter.”2 And you really do. We all do. We all have our special role to play. And if we don’t fill up our alloted space, we are destined to fail others who are relying upon us.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)

In this quote from the Apostle Paul, he reminds us of the exact same thing. We all have our role, and we must not only fill that role, but we must also be content with that role.

But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:20)

“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21, ESV).

I believe humility is the starting point for this. Once we realize the space we are supposed to occupy, we can begin filling it properly and neither spilling out onto others, nor shrinking back from our responsibilities. Are you occupying your proper space?

 

  1. Morinis, Alan, (2008). Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar. Trumpeter, 52
  2. Jacobson, Simon, (1995). Toward a Meaningful Life: The Wisdom of the Rebbe (a Collection of Teachings By Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson). William Morrow Paperbacks, 14

Hakarat Hatov – Recognizing the Good

 

Word of Faith cartoon

Over the last few weeks I’ve been consistently delving into the ancient practice of mussar each morning. This has been a huge source of inspiration and discipline for me.  For those who are not familiar with mussar, in very simplistic terms it is a practice within Judaism that has been developed over the last thousand years to develop and hone ethical traits within a person, using the Bible as its fountainhead. It began to reach widespread popularity with the works of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter in the 19th century. The primary text I have been using thus far has been Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis.

This morning, as I began the next chapter, which deals with Gratitude, I came across something that made me reflect back on a conversation I had recently with a friend of mine. The text reads as follows:

The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat ha’tov, which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” The good is already there. Practicing gratitude means being fully aware of the good that is already yours.

The last sentence in this quote is what got my attention, particularly the statement that we must be “fully aware of the good that is already yours.” In my recent conversation, my friend was sharing with me what he recently learned from his church. He said that he learned that everything we need has already been given to us, because of the work of Christ on the cross. Therefore, if we need healing, we just need to thank God for it and claim our healing, because we have actually already been healed by Jesus; we just need to claim it.

This type of teaching is typically called “Word of Faith,” and is prevalent among many charismatic churches. These two concepts sound like quite similar. They both seem to be centered on recognizing a reality that does not presently exist. However, if we look carefully at the differences between Hakarat ha’tov and Word of Faith, we will see that they are quite distinct. The first distinction is that  the former looks backward, while the latter looks forward. Also, the former focuses on the blessings (whether obvious or seemingly hidden) one has already received, while the latter focuses on the blessings one will be receiving. The former says, “I thank you, Lord, for the financial blessing you gave to me in my time of need.” The latter says, “I thank you, Lord, for the financial blessings you will give me in this time of need, because I already possess them in Christ.” Again, the former is thankful for the previous reality, while the latter is thankful for the future reality.

The difference between the two may not seem significant. However, the fruit of the two lines of philosophy should be fairly apparent. The one who practices hakarat ha’tov is instilled with a sense of gratefulness and humility that his past needs have been supplied, and is assured that whether or not his present needs seem to be met (according to his perception), he has something for which he can already be thankful. The one who practices Word of Faith, however, is prone to presumptuousness and insolence in that he feels that his needs are an entitlement. This tends to allow one to walk before the Lord without humility and expect him to satisfy our own desires, rather than being thankful for that with which He has already blessed us.

I’m not saying that my friend is arrogant. I am saying, however, that this type of theology typically lends itself toward this mentality and I have seen it far too many times. We must remember, that although Jesus gave us everything, we should still be content and gleeful to be dogs who eat the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table, rather than demanding our share of the loaf. Let us “Count our blessings, name them one by one. Count our many blessings, see what God has done” and live a life filled with thankfulness, rather than presumption. Let us be truly thankful in this season of the many things our Heavenly Father has done for us without any expectation of what blessings we may or may not receive in the future.

What’s Stopping You?

One of this week’s mussar teachings from A Daily Dose of Torah (ADDT) references arguments & techniques of the yetzer hara (our “evil inclination” – or as Paul would say, our “flesh”) which keep us from achieving our potential. It summarizes it as follows:

The arguments and persuasive techniques of the yetzer hara are presented in two categories: (1) those that involve raising doubts about fundamental religious beliefs and faith; and (2) those that try to dissuade a person from concentrating on spiritual concerns, and urge him instead to focus on the physical and the self. 1

ADDT defines these things as things which raise religious doubts, and arguments which cause us to loose our spiritual direction. I would like to broaden these to two general categories. In a nutshell, the two things that keep us from fulfilling our divine purpose in life are Doubts and Distractions.

Doubts

We have all had doubts that creep in as to our purpose… Should we be doing this? Should we be doing that? Should we have done this? Should we have done that? Is this really the choice I am supposed to make? What if I’m wrong? The list goes on and on. Doubt is a huge factor in following the will of the Almighty. The problem with doubt is that it is so deceptive. In nearly every case, we can overcome doubt by looking at the possible outcomes of our choices, and the “what if” scenarios. “What if” we made this choice? “What if” we made that choice? Would it be a disaster? In some cases, yes, it would be. But in the vast majority of cases, no, it would not. It would just mean that we would fail trying to accomplish something. Therefore, our pride is the only thing standing in our way. Our pride guards our doubts, and therefore cripples us from ever really knowing if something was the will of the Almighty or not.

“…the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” (James 1:6)

I don’t believe that it is as much of waiting to hear clearly sometimes as it is taking initiative and allowing our Heavenly Father to open and close doors along the way. He can do much more with one who is in “drive” than in “park.” In other words, “Get off your duff, and go for it!”

Distractions

In regard to distractions, I think this may be the single-most pitfall of Western Christianity. We are so distracted by entertainment (and even “edutainment”) that the Adversary doesn’t have to work hard to keep us from fulfilling our purpose. Our X-boxes, Wiis, iPads and smartphones keep our minds revolving around things other than our spiritual needs. We are constantly being inundated by the TV as to what to eat, wear, & buy. Not only do we rush off to get the latest trendy gadget or hairstyle, but most of the time we view it as a “necessity.” What if we focused all of that time, energy & money on doing something that would have eternal repercussions? What if we weren’t so distracted from our spiritual purposes? The sages were unsympathetic in regard to making excuses for distractions:

Rabbi Jacob said: If a man is walking by the way and is studying and then interrupts his study and says: “How fine is this tree?” or “How fine is this plowed field?” Scripture regards him as though he was liable for his life. (Avot 3:9)

The author of the epistle of Hebrews says something similar:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

And then Paul admonishes us:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

So… we can either use our time to serve our flesh, or to serve our Heavenly Father.

Rabbi Yosi said… Let all your deeds be done for the sake of Heaven. (Avot 2:17)

Are you pursuing things that are eternal, or are you allowing doubts and distractions to direct your life? What if all believers across the globe actually lived out their faith every moment of every day? What if we actually put aside doubts & distractions to accomplish the work of the Kingdom? Wouldn’t that be strange…?

Wouldn’t It Be Strange

(by Charlie Peacock)

I’ve got a question for your consideration
I’ll make you privy to my contemplation
Let me say in my defense
I know it goes against all common sense

It’s not our nature
Not what we’ve been taught
Flies in the face of every lie we’ve bought
It’s hard to see it
Harder to explain
I know it cuts against the grain

Wouldn’t it be strange if riches made you poor
And everything you owned left you wanting more?
Wouldn’t it be strange to question what it’s for?
Wouldn’t it be strange?

I know we’ve got some interest to protect
A set of dots we’re committed to connect
It makes us nervous in light of how it’s been
To play a little game of pretend

Wouldn’t it be strange if power made you weak
And victory came to those who turned the other cheek
Wouldn’t it be strange to welcome your defeat
Wouldn’t it be strange?

Wouldn’t it be strange to find out in the end
The first will be the last and all the losers win?
Wouldn’t it be strange if Jesus came again?
Wouldn’t it be strange?

  1. The Kleinman Edition, A Daily Dose of Torah, Vol. 10, p. 139.