As I stated on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I have dedicated this year’s High Holy Day sermons to an exploration of the teachings of the Mussar Movement. For the sake of those who have not had the opportunity to hear or read my earlier sermons, I will offer you a very brief introduction to Mussar and why the lessons of Mussar have so much to offer us, especially during the High Holy Days.
The Mussar Movement was started in the latter part of the 19th century, in Lithuania, and primarily is an ethics based approach to Judaism. While Halachah – Jewish Law – focuses on the behaviors which can draw us closer to God and make us better people, Mussar focuses on the attitudes which, if we incorporate them into our life perspective, will automatically, if not instinctually, drive us in the direction of performing proper, God-desired behaviors. While Halachah presents us with a discipline of Mitzvot – sacred behaviors which result in sacred living, Mussar presents us with a collection of Middot – sacred character traits which lead us to sacred living. If we can incorporate the Middot – these sacred attitudes – into the way we approach how we interact with the world, then we can grow as more decent human beings and the performance of the Mitzvot will become all the more natural to us.
As I explained in an earlier sermon, Mussar views our attitudes as existing along a continuum where both extreme ends are equally destructive to our character. The example I gave then was of a continuum extending from extreme greed to extreme generosity. In that case, one extreme would cut us off from any sort of healthy relationship with our fellow human beings while the other would make it impossible for us to physically survive. The Middot guide us to finding a spiritual “sweet spot”, so to speak, somewhere along such a continuum; a place where both extremes meet in a very healthy and positive manner. In the case of the continuum between greed and generosity, the Middah takes us to that place where we are greedy enough to retain sufficient means to support ourselves and our families, yet generous enough to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate than us.
This morning I wish to focus our attention on a very important Middah. It is the Middah of Anavah; the Middah of Humility. For Anavah – Humility – is a foundational Middah for both Mussar and the High Holy Days. Without a true sense of Anavah, all that we do here today is absolutely meaningless. Without a true sense of Anavah, we can have no spiritual life.
It has been said that the two most difficult words for a human being to utter is “I’m sorry.” We are so ready and willing to accuse others of having wronged us, yet we are so resistant to apologizing for our actions, accepting the possibility and the responsibility for having wronged others. Why is that so? Because we lack a sense of Anavah; we refuse to believe that there are times when we just might be less than we think we are. So often, we can be like the man who is about to receive a high honor and is dressing for the presentation banquet. Gazing into the mirror as he ties his tie, he says to his wife, “Honey, how many great men do you think there really are in the world?” To which she immediately responds, “One less than you do, my dear.” There is just something about us which, while all too ready to raise up our strengths, is all too eager to cover up our shortcomings, as if, if we were to admit to them, we would somehow shatter completely and be no more.
In an earlier sermon, I quoted the Hasidic saying, “There is no room for God in those who are too full of themselves.” But our tradition recognized that basic human flaw long before the Hasidim came on the scene. The Torah itself warns us about it, for as it says in the book of DEUTERONOMY. “Take care lest you forget the Eternal your God… When you have eaten your fill and built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied and your silver and your gold have increased… then your heart will grow haughty and you will forget the Eternal your God… And you will say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have won this wealth for me.’ Then you should remember the Eternal your God, for it is God who gives you the strength to amass wealth…”
One of the basic principles of Mussar is Halachta BiDrachav – Walking in God’s Way. In other words, living a life in imitation of God. Trying to be more like God in our behaviors. The mystics tell us that if it were not for God’s own sense of Anavah – God’s own humility – the universe itself would never have come into existence. How so? Because some of the basic, classical beliefs concerning God would have made it impossible. First among them is the belief that God is Omnipresent; that God exists everywhere. If God fills all existence, then there is no room left for us. So, according to the mystics, what did God do? They call it Tzimtzum. God contracted God’s self in order to make room for Creation.
If we are going to live our lives in imitation of God, then we, too, have to be willing to contract ourselves. We have to suck it in and draw ourselves back from thinking that we are everything and that the universe centers around us. We have to make room in our lives for God and room in our lives to realize that we still have space to grow; that we are not all that we can be. That is Anavah – humility. As Susan Freeman puts it in her book, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES, “Being clear about what we are not is the first step in moving toward what we want to become.”
When it come to the Middah of Anavah, humility, like the other Middot, it, too, seeks to find a spiritual “sweet spot” along a continuum; the continuum spanning from absolute arrogance to total self-denigration. Somewhere between the two is true Anavah. Unfortunately, all too often we resist seeking that sweet spot because we mistakenly confuse humility with humiliation, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Part of our resistance is a product of our modern culture. We are constantly being told that we need the newest, the best, the biggest things if our lives are to be fulfilling. People literally line up and wait for hours before the store opens in order to purchase the newest IPhone. Go into a store like Best Buy and you will see bigger and bigger and bigger big screen TVs. Somewhere along the line, we find ourselves identifying with all of that, and toxically so. If we do not possess the newest, the biggest, the best, then we come to believe that we ourselves are not “the best.” Enough never seems to be enough, as we find ourselves measuring ourselves by what items we own rather than by what type of people we are. And when it comes to those possessions, the answer is always to be found on the extreme of the newest, the latest models. To have less than that becomes humiliating.
Ironically, to attain a true sense of Anavah, is to realize that the answer is not to be found on the extreme, but rather somewhere toward the middle, and more importantly, it has absolutely nothing to do with what we own or where we live, but with who we are. And if we can attain the Middah of Anavah, issues like what we own, where we live, what kind of car we drive, will neither humiliate us nor exalt us. For they are no measure of the type of people we are, but only of what we have.
So when it comes to Anavah, we need to keep our eye on the ball. Our embracing of humility should in no way disable our sense of self-esteem, bringing us to some lowly state of self-deprecation, but rather it should empower us to recognize that while we have much to be proud us, still we are not all that we could be. There is yet some distance along the road of self-improvement which we have yet to travel. That there is more that we can do. More than we can be. And we can make it, just as long as we keep trying.
Where is the Middah of Anavah to be found? Perhaps the Hasidic Rabbi, Simcha Bunam, described it best. He said, “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending upon the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: ‘For my sake was the world created.’ But when feeling high and mighty, one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”
Far from humiliating us, Anavah can heal us. It can empower us to shed the façade we present to the world of always being right, of always being perfect, of always being more than we actually are. There is something truly uplifting in being able to admit to our shortcomings, as well as reveling in our strengths. “I’m sorry” may be two of the most difficult words to say, but they can also be two of the most liberating words to say; two of the most healing words to say. It can be wondrous to behold how the walls of anger and resentment can crumble before words of true repentance and an act of true atonement. Weights can be lifted from the soul and the heart can be given wings when our Anavah leads us to resolving conflicts and rekindling love.
As embracing Anavah can clear the path to renewing and strengthening our relationship with others, it can also open the gates to Heaven. For it is only through Anavah that we can make room for God in our lives. It takes an attitude of Anavah to bring us to the point that we recognize that God is truly a part of our lives; that God is there for us, that God has always been there for us, but we, somewhere along the line, knowingly or unknowingly, have built a wall to keep God out, just like those people the Torah was talking about in that text from DUETERONOMY. Yet, with Anavah, that wall, too can come down. We can open ourselves up to the possibility of God being real, of God being present, and of God seeking us if we but seek God. It is that spirit of Anavah which will bring life to our prayers. It can transform them into more than meaningless utterances that may cross our lips as we wait for the clock to signal the end of this day.
There is a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who one day, with his disciples, entered a town and went to the synagogue to pray. As he got to the door, he suddenly stopped, refusing to enter. He disciples were incredulous, and they asked him to explain to them what was the problem. He said: “The room is full and there is no room for me.” Looking through the door of the synagogue, of course they saw plenty of empty seats, and they told him so. He responded: “You don’t understand. The room is full of empty words, for the words of the prayers that are offered here have been given no wings with which to rise to Heaven. Therefore they fall out of the mouths of the worshippers; dropping to the floor. And there they have remained, filling this room from wall to wall and from floor to ceiling, leaving no room for me.”
If we can embrace the Middah of Anavah, and in true humility, open ourselves up to the possibility of our prayers this day reaching out to God, and God reaching in to us, then the words of our prayers can fly heavenward, and God’s loving presence can be brought into this sanctuary and into our hearts and souls. If only we can shrink our sense of self and make room for God, then God will rush to be with us.
 Buber, Martin, TEN RUNGS: HASIDIC SAYINGS, p. 102.
 DEUTERONOMY 8:11-18.
 Freeman, Susan, TEACHING JEWISH VALUES: SACRES SOURCES AND ARTS ACTIVITIES, p. 8.
 Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM: LATER MASTERS, PP. 249-250.
 Buber, Martin, TALES OF THE HASIDIM: EARLY MASTERS, P. 73