Monday, March 31, 2014

Tear Down the Walls! / Parshat Metzora

Medical anthropologists Ron Barrett and George Aremelagos contend that ancient nomadic peoples suffered less from acute infectious diseases that led to raging epidemics than from chronic infections and parasites contracted hunting and gathering. With the advent of the agricultural revolution, people settled into the land and formed villages, allowing local populations to grow sufficiently large to support acute epidemic disease. Torah speaks of plagues that strike the Israelites, interpreting them as God’s punishment for violations of divine will; perhaps this is a reflection of the later agricultural period in Israelite history.

In the parshiot Tazria and Metzora, we find echoes of the nomadic challenge of chronic infections. In this week’s parashah, Metzora, Torah discusses the metzora, one who is afflicted with tzara’at, which is often inaccurately translated “leprosy,” as well as neg’a, some sort of plague that infests houses, growing on the walls. Imagine, for a moment, how frightening such infestations must have been in the ancient world.

The term tzara’at is an umbrella term covering a variety of skin ailments that were understood to convey ritual impurity and require exclusion from the community until healed, followed by purification when the sufferer is welcomed back. We do not know precisely what conditions are included under this umbrella, but chronic infections and parasitic skin ailments are undoubtedly among them. Priests preside over the identification of tzara’at, the welfare of the metzora who is required to reside outside the camp, and the purification of the sufferer once readmitted. Purification involves two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson stuff, and hyssop (Leviticus 14:4) entwined in a complex ritual. Here is how Torah describes it:

The priest shall order one of the birds slaughtered over fresh water in an earthen vessel; and he shall take the live bird, along with the cedar wood, the crimson stuff, and the hyssop, and dip them together with the live bird in the blood of the bird that was slaughtered over the fresh water. He shall then sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be purified of the eruption and purify him; and he shall set the live bird free in the open country. The one to be purified shall wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, and bathe in water; then he shall be pure. After that he may enter the camp, but he must remain outside his tent seven days. On the seventh day he shall shave off all his hair—of head, beard, and eyebrows. When he has shaved off all his hair, he shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water; then he shall be pure. (Leviticus 14:5-9)

The following day, the recovered metzora brings a sacrifice to the Tent of Meeting consisting of two male lambs, one ewe lamb, flour, and oil.

The metzora bathes himself not once, but twice: the first time he washes his clothes, shaves his hair, and bathes his body while still outside the camp, just before re-entering; again, a week later just prior to bringing sacrificial offerings to the Mishkan (Tabernacle) he bathes a second time. Sefer Ha-Hinnuch, published anonymously in Spain in the 13th century, explains that the purpose of bathing himself is not only to cleanse himself. We are talking about ritual purity here, not personal hygiene, so this comes as no surprise, but Sefer Ha-Hinnuch has an interesting take on the spiritual effect the immersion in water: It is an act of rebirth or recreation; the metzora is born anew out of the water. Just as the world emerged out of watery chaos (Genesis 1:2) so too the metzora emerges spiritually a new person from the emotional chaos of tzara’at, the exclusion from the community, and recovery. He is a different person.

Many people who have gone through a devastating illness report that they emerged new people and describe survival as starting life over. Suleika Jaouad graduated from Princeton University in 2010, ripe and ready to jump onto the fast track to success. No sooner had she begun her first corporate job than she was diagnosed with cancer. Following two years of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, Suleika emerged a different person, one who had developed what she calls “invisible muscles” for confronting and coping with stress. One senses that her experience has led her to reassess her life path. The world looks entirely different on the other side of the dark tunnel, because the one who emerges into the light is forever changed.

If you have been in the dark valley of illness or trauma, did you emerge changed in some way? Were you, in a sense, born anew, with new insights and priorities, newfound sensibilities?

The S’fat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, 1847–1905) makes a fascinating comment on a very strange verse in the parashah. After recounting the rituals and procedures described above, Torah tells us:

When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you as a possession, and I inflict an eruptive plague upon a house in the land you possess, the owner of the house shall come and tell the priest, saying, “Something like a plague has appeared upon my house.” (Leviticus 14:34)

The S’fat Emet asks, as perhaps you are asking yourself:

What sort of strange announcement is this?

S’fat Emet invokes Rashi’s imaginative suggestion that the plague on the walls of the houses was not a punishment for wrongdoing, but rather a ploy to compel the Israelites to tear down the walls, thus revealing treasure concealed within. He explains:

Rashi explains that the Canaanites [had been hiding gold treasures inside the walls of their houses, which the Israelites would find upon destroying the houses]. Now really?! Did the Creator of the universe need to resort to such contortions? Why would God have given the Canaanites the idea of hiding [treasures in the walls of their houses] so that Israel would have to knock down the houses?!

The idea of a treasure-concealed-within inspires S’fat Emet to comment:

The real meaning of these afflictions of houses is in fact quite wondrous, a demonstration that Israel’s holiness is so great that they can also draw sanctity and purity into their dwelling-places… That is what Israel did when they brought the land of Canaan forth from defilement and into the reality of holiness. Then it became the Land of Israel, and the blessed Creator caused His presence to dwell in the holy Temple...

We can already see that S’fat Emet is bringing a psychological interpretation to this passage of Torah. The houses of the Canaanites are the world around, as well as us. The treasure concealed in the walls is the holiness implicit in everything in the world, including us—all reality—awaiting discovery. But we build psychological walls in our houses-of-the-self and fail to find them. Yet the hidden treasures—inherent holiness—abounds and surrounds us. And what is more, the treasure of holiness is within us. S’fat Emet concludes:

This is the real “hidden treasure” — that in the most corporeal of objects there are hidden sparks of the greatest holiness… (S’fat Emet 3:139f)

We must destroy the walls to find the treasure. I would propose that our walls may be build of self-absorption, deceit, insensitivity, vicious competitiveness, overweening pride, thoughtlessness, stubbornness, narrow-mindedness, nastiness, fear of considering new ideas, pomposity—all of which arise from our sense of vulnerability and insecurity. We build the walls (that is, act out of these negative attributes) to protect ourselves, to wall ourselves off from the sense of being vulnerable, the feeling of insecurity. The key to our happiness and wellbeing, expressed in Torah as cure and purification, is to tear down the walls and shed these negative traits.

But how do we do that? It would seem by accepting vulnerability and insecurity as a normal part of the human psyche. It’s okay to feel that way—everyone does. A young mother named Lana who suffers from chronic illness (rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia) says that illness has changed her in some positive ways, as well as some not-so-positive, ways. The positive changes are that she has learned to choose acceptance, to offer and when necessary seek support, and to look for a silver lining instead of asking “why?” Lana understand that she must actively decide to choose to accept her vulnerability. She copes with her insecurity by choosing to accept help from others, and by pushing away the dead-end question of “why” and instead searching for a silver lining.

Demolition is never easy. But it is liberating. It may seem counter-intuitive, but accepting our own vulnerability and insecurity contributes to our own spiritual healing by allowing us to liberate the treasures of holiness hidden behind the walls. Accepting our own vulnerability and insecurity frees us to be far better versions of ourselves.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, March 23, 2014

When is a Rash Not a Rash? / Parshat Tazria

Contracting poison ivy as a child meant I had to remain at home because the sight of it elicited looks and comments best not repeated. Living in New England, it was not difficult to come by poison ivy; all it took was someone down the road burning wood in a fireplace. Around the age of 10, a publisher producing a textbook with the working title, “Extreme Cases in Dermatology” called from California to request a photo of me with a full-blown case of poison ivy for the book. Somehow they’d heard about the kid from Connecticut who got whopping cases of it. I knew what that meant: I was a hideous freak. You won’t be surprised to learn that I said no thank you.

Parshat Tazria dives headfirst into the deep end of the pool of physical embodiment, specifically the muck and mire of a broad array of skin conditions, all gathered under the rubric tzara’at: rashes, sores, scaly conditions, swellings and inflammations, leprosy, skin eruptions, and even burns… These conditions all render one tamei, in a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity), unfit to enter the Ohel Mo’ed (Tent of Meeting), and even requiring exclusion from Israel’s encampment. The priests served as examiners and diagnosticians, and determined when one stricken with a skin lesion could be admitted back into the community and undergo a purification ritual.

We do not live with a constant awareness of, and concern about, ritual purity. Death itself, which is to say contact with a corpse, is the most severe purveyor of tum’ah, but the sores and rashes of tzara’at make one impure, as well. Jacob Milgrom explains that matters of ritual purity—tum’ah and taharah—reflect Torah’s premium on life. That which touches death conveys tum’ah (impurity). Purification, then, is the process of restoring full life to the body.

Mary Douglas, in Purity and Danger, suggests that tum’ah is about disruption of the proper order, a trespass of proper boundaries and limits, in this case of the body most directly, but by extension disruption of the world order. The danger impurity poses to the body is mirrored in the society as a whole because the individual’s body is a microcosm of society, the social body. This explains why one stricken with impurity-rendering body sores was separated from the community until cured.

Those periodic cases of poison ivy certainly disrupted the order of my life in a big way. Hiding at home, the equivalent of outside the camp, shielded me from painful stares and comments. Poison ivy was not just skin deep. Like the Torah, the early Hasidic masters also understood that tzara’at was far more than skin deep, but in a very different way. For them, the sores, rashes, and eruptions are understood as symbolic of spiritual lesions.

R. Elimelekh of Lizhensk (1717-1787) interprets this passage from Tazria:
When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration [or: brightness], and it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin of his body it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests. The priest shall examine the affliction on the skin of his body: if hair in the affected patch has turned white and the affliction appears to be deeper than the skin of his body it is a leprous affliction; when the priest sees it he shall pronounce him unclean. (Leviticus 13:2-3)
R. Elimelekh, in his commentary on the Torah, Noam Elimelekh, identifies each manifestation of tzara’at mentioned by Torah: swellings, rashes, and discolorations.
A swelling refers to bad qualities that are the root of sin, and the root of all bad qualities is pride…

Or a rash. Here Scriptures warns us against various causes that can lead a person to arrogance. The first is associating with empty people who spend their days in the streets—such company can lead a person to arrogance very quickly…

Or a discoloration/brightness. This is the second cause. Sometimes the bright light and enthusiasm a person feels from doing a good deed can lead to arrogance. You have to be very careful with this.

And it develops into a scaly affliction on the skin of his body. The words “affliction” (נגע in Hebrew) and “pleasure” (ענג in Hebrew) are written with the same letters [נ, ג, ע]. This teaches that you can transform the affliction into pleasure [that is, you can transform something bad into something good], but if you are not careful it will become tzara’at.
R. Elimelekh goes on to equate the priests with tzaddikim, Hasidic rabbis who guide the sufferer toward spiritual healing. For Elimelekh, this is an important point; he was instrumental in developing the Hasidic doctrine of the Tzaddik as a mystical, spiritual leader.

R. Elimelekh begins with an arcane text from the Torah, one that is remote from our world both ritually and scientifically, and reinterprets it for the spiritual realm we inhabit in the 21st—and any other—century. He warns us that pride and arrogance are the enemies of goodness and, ultimately, happiness in our lives. Pride and arrogance are defensive emotions that guard against vulnerability, revealing the true self, and the risk that we are not what we would hope to be. Pride and arrogance corrode our souls, transform our visages, and render us unfit to be among others. And lest we tell ourselves: but I’m not prideful, nor am I arrogant — R. Elimelekh warns us that even the good feeling that comes from doing a good deed, while not in itself bad, can lead to arrogance if we are not careful to guard against it.

Arrogance is corrosive, and poisons our relationships. A farmer from Texas, touring England, met an English farmer and asked, “How big is your farm?” The Englishman replied, “Thirty-five acres.” “Thirty-five acres?” scoffed the Texan. “Why I can get in my truck at 8:00 am and drive until noon and still be on my farm. Then I can eat lunch and drive again until 5:00 pm and I’m still on my farm.” The Englishman nodded in sympathy. “I had a truck like that once, too.” Humor may serve on occasion to hold another’s arrogance at arm’s length, but not always, and it certainly doesn’t help us mitigate our own arrogance.

R. Elimelekh therefore offers a common and wonderful Hasidic trop: evil and negativity can be transformed into goodness. Here R. Elimelekh employs a word play: the terms in Hebrew for “affliction” נגע, and “pleasure” ענג, are written with the same three Hebrew letters: נ, ג, ע. Re-arranging “affliction” gives us “pleasure.” One is never imprisoned by one’s negative traits; they can always be transformed into something good and wonderful through awareness, effort, and with the help of a “priest” who might be a spiritual guide, spouse, friend, or therapist.

R. Elimelekh’s interpretation of tzara’at may be far from the very real biblical concern with skin afflictions and their implications for ritual purity, but it speaks to us now in the lives we live.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sacrifices: cycle of kindness, or vicious circle? / Parshat Shemini

In the wake of World War II and the devastation Japan experienced through the bombing of Tokyo, and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a frantic rush to rebuild. Cheap, low-quality wooden frame houses popped up everywhere. Lacking seismic reinforcement, many did not survive subsequent earthquakes and in short order did not meet heightened building codes, so they depreciated with time. Today it is common for people to buy land, demolish the existing house, and build anew. Architect Alistair Townsend, who works in Japan says, “The houses that are built today exceed the quality of just about any other country in the world, at least for timber buildings. So there’s really no reason that they should drop in value and be demolished.”

It seems that Japan has fallen into a vicious cycle: people don’t maintain or upgrade their houses, contributing to the sense that they are disposable. And that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Richard Koo, chief economist at the Nomura Research Institute, says that houses in Japan have become durable consumer goods. As a result, Japan is awash in a building boom and it’s an architect’s paradise, yet the population is shrinking, and the economy has been stagnant for two decades likely in great measure due to the building boom.

Vicious cycles of assumption about how the world operates are all too common. In this week’s parashah, Shemini, the Tabernacle is complete and Aaron and his sons have been ordained priests to minister there and make the sacrifices. Torah tells us that as soon as the sacrifices commence, God will appear.

On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel. He said to Aaron: “Take a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering without blemish and bring them before the Lord. And speak to the Israelites saying: Take a he-goat for a sin offering; a calf and a lamb, yearlings without blemish for a burnt offering; and an ox and a ram for an offering of well-being to sacrifice before the Lord; and a meal offering with oil mixed in. For today the Lord will appear to you.” (Leviticus 9:1-4)

Isn’t this more than a tad peculiar? God suddenly appears to the people? God who, according to Torah, has appeared as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them through the Wilderness for the past year? (Exodus 40:17 tells us the Tabernacle was erected in the first month of the second year after leaving Egypt.)

Is it possible that, with the sacrificial cult officially inaugurated and operating daily, the people have come to see God in a different way? In the midrash the Rabbis, keenly aware that the Tabernacle and the Temple in Jerusalem are no longer available to Israel, perhaps wonder: How does offering sacrifices affect how God “appears” to the Israelites? How do we, without sacrifices, experience God’s presence? Vayikra Rabbah (Leviticus Rabbah) 11:5, without even referencing the parashah, gives a striking answer, or perhaps we might say, a stunning warning. 

The midrash opens with Psalm 18:26:

With the merciful, You are merciful;
With those with integrity, You act with integrity,
With the pure, You act pure,
And with the crafty, You are wily.

The Psalm suggests that those who are merciful are inclined to see God as merciful; those who are crafty tend to see God as wily. A God who possesses the same attributes we do reinforces and justifies our behavior, be it good or bad.

Rav Yehudah, however, interprets Psalm 18:26 as applying to Abraham in a very concrete way:

When [Abraham] acted with mercy, the Holy One blessed be God was merciful toward him. When [Abraham] acted with integrity, the Holy One blessed be God acted with integrity. When [Abraham] acted craftily, the Holy One blessed be God acted wily. When [Abraham] sought clarification about his affairs, the Holy One blessed be God clarified for him his affairs.

Curiously, Rav Yehudah has changed the order of the four behavioral characteristics, reversing the third and fourth, perhaps in order to end on a positive note. His explanation, drawing on the account in Genesis, goes like this: First, when God, in the guise of three strangers, visits Abraham (Genesis 18:3), Abraham lavishes kindness on his guests, washing their feet and preparing for them a feast. When they take their leave, Torah tells us: Abraham remained standing before the Lord (Genesis 18:22), which R. Shimon handily explains in the midrash the Scribes amended to say that the Shekhinah (God’s presence) waited for Abraham (hence God’s kindness in repayment of Abraham’s). Second, when Abraham pleads with integrity the case of the innocent in Sodom and Gomorrah, God responds with integrity, promising not to destroy the innocent (Genesis 18:28). Third, when Abraham acted craftily, pointing out that since he is childless his servant Eliezer will inherit his estate, Abraham implies that God promised—but failed to deliver—progeny; God responds in kind with an evasive and incomplete answer, merely saying that Eliezer will not inherit (Genesis 15:2-4). Finally, when Abraham requests a clear and upfront accounting of where he stands vis-à-vis possessing the Land of Israel, God replies that his offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs—clearly implying that they will ultimately wind up in the land that is theirs (Genesis 15:8, 13). The midrash continues with R. Nechemiah’s exposition of Moses’ interactions with God along the same lines.

This is a peculiar midrash. Is Rav Yehudah suggesting that God merely follows peoples’ lead—if they’re nice, so is God, but if they’re not, God responds in kind? Tit for tat? This sounds like a petty version of retributive justice.

Is Rav Yehudah suggesting that, like the sacrifices, what we put out, we get in return? What you give out in terms of kindness, generosity, civility and respect on the one hand, and shrewdness, avarice, cruelty, and neglect on the other, determines what you get back—a kind of karma-in-this-lifetime? If so, the sacrifices are a means of propitiating God in order to manipulate God into treating us with kindness and generosity.

I suspect that this is his meaning, but for me, the midrash serves as a warning that in the world of sacrifices there is the risk of seeing sacrifices as “payment-in-advance” in a tit for tat universe. By such thinking, no gift is pure; it is always given with an expectation of being paid in kind because reciprocity rules. Our lives are complex enough to marshal “evidence” to prove the conjecture that God (or other people, or the world itself, for that matter) operates as Rav Yehudah reads Psalm 18:26. As his cherry-picking verses from Genesis to fit his interpretation that God responds in kind, do we find a warning that we do the same thing, recalling with emphasis words and events that fit our theory, ignoring those that fail to confirm a tit for tat perspective?

The Japanese housing market has fallen into a vicious cycle, one of waste and destruction, and one which prevents Japanese families from accumulating wealth and establishing an economically vibrant society. In a similar way, the thinking exemplified by this midrash can engender a vicious circle in our lives of seeing the entire world as tit for tat: a place that is unsafe, unfair, and unkind. In fact, the purpose of the sacrifices is to demonstrate love and loyalty to God without a definitive and detailed expectation of personal return on the investment, because when we give out of love and loyalty, we build vibrant and enduring relationships.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, March 10, 2014

Priestly fashions—what's trending this season? / Parshat Tzav

In second grade, I assumed that my teacher lived at the school. After all, that’s the only place I saw her. In third grade, a friend and I rode our bikes through her neighborhood and passed my social studies teacher, gardening in her front yard. What a shock! She lived in a house and had a life outside school. I suppose that wouldn’t come as a surprise to children these days. Yet the students of Jim O’Connor, who teaches math at St. Francis High School in La Canada, California, knew nothing of their math teacher’s life outside school either. Mr. O’Connor, a Vietnam vet with short-cropped hair, an unexpressive face (at least in the classroom), and stern countenance, is a strict teacher. He doesn’t believe school can be fun. He expects students to work hard. He is not the sort to coddle anyone—or so his students thought, until one of them, Pat McGoldrick, discovered a hidden side to Mr. O’Connor, buried beneath his forbidding exterior.

In parshat Tzav we read about the consecration of Aaron as High Priest, and his sons as priests. In preparation for the ceremony, Moses dresses Aaron in the raiment of his office:

He put the tunic on him, girded him with the sash, clothed him with the robe, and put the ephod on him, girding him with the decorated band with which he tied it to him. He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thumim. And he set the headdress on his head; and on the headdress, in front, he put the gold frontlet, the holy diadem—as the Lord had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:7-9)

Appearance—the outside wrapping—is important. Talmud tells us that when it comes to the priesthood, the clothes make the man:

While they are clothed in the priestly garments, they are clothed in the priesthood; but when they are not wearing the garments, the priesthood is not upon them. (BT Zevachim 17b)

This is particularly interesting because when it comes to Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, when the High Priest plays the central and decisive role in the nation’s ritual, we find something curious and anomalous. The High Priest had two sets of raiment: the “Golden Garments” and the “Linen Garments” between which he changed four times. At the outset of the day, the High Priest wore the sparkling, impressive, regal Golden Garments. Talmud (BT Yoma 23b) describes how he changed into the far plainer Linen Garments for the two occasions he would enter the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. The first time he entered to offer the blood of the atonement offering and the incense; the second time he entered to retrieve the incense censor. In between, he donned the Golden Garments.

The High Priest appears one way—robed in gold robes—in front of the people, but quite another way—dressed in simple linen garments—in God’s presence. All pretenses stripped away, his exterior revealing his inner self, the High Priest presented himself before God as himself.

Mr. O’Connor also presented a façade to his students: strict and demanding—outer garments of the man the students knew as stern and severe. But Pat McGoldrick, during a visit to the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles to arrange a blood drive, noticed that on a plaque listing the biggest blood donors, Mr. O’Connor’s name headed the list. He then discovered that Mr. O’Connor also comes to the hospital not to give blood, but to give love. He may not have coddled his students, but three days each week for 20 years, he has come to Children’s Hospital to cuddle, feed, and comfort babies whose parents cannot be with them. Beneath the gruff exterior is an altogether different man than Mr. O’Connor’s students thought they knew.

Perhaps the High Priest divested of his Golden Garments and donned simple, revealing linen garments because, before God, all is seen and all is known.

And perhaps the message for us is twofold: First, we sometimes think we know people, as Mr. O’Connor’s students believed they knew their calculus teacher to be gruff and cold. We know far less than we think, and this is especially true concerning the pain and burdens so many people carry with them through life. It is for this reason that our Sages taught dan et kol ha-adam l’chaf z’chut—judge everyone for merit, given them the benefit of the doubt.

The second message concerns us: We might be tempted to laud Mr. O’Connor’s quiet practice of chesed (loving kindness) as an act of humility, but that would probably be wrong. Mr. O’Connor, when interviewed by a reporter, said he didn’t want his tender and compassionate side revealed to his students, and that’s too bad. Pat McGoldrick said, “I’ve always respected him, but now it’s a different degree really, to the point where I try to emulate him. He’s the epitome of a man of service.” Perhaps we should hide less behind the trappings of our positions, jobs, titles, or stations in life, and be as the High Priest in the Holy of Holies: clothed in simpler garments and there to be of service.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, March 3, 2014

Size matters / Parshat Vayikra

Every family has its own in-house competitions. For a time, ours revolved around who could bring home the most ludicrous certificate. In the heyday of self-esteem-through-worksheets-and-certificates, it seemed that no matter what the kids did, they brought home a certificate or award, often merely for being there. I shudder to think how many trees were felled to print all these certificates. My daughter Naomi won the family competition with a certificate so absurd, it brought the contest to a grounding halt: she received a “certificate of invitation” to apply to a pricy summer program. The underlying thinking behind the deluge of certificates was that self-esteem was deemed an essential entitlement of all children. And while I agree that self-esteem is crucially important, it is arguable whether passing out certificates of participation and invitation cultivates genuine self-esteem. And this brings us to the topic of humility, because self-esteem built on a pile of rubbish generates arrogance and closes out the possibility for humility.
This week we open Torah to the Book of Leviticus and, if we peer into a sefer Torah (the hand-written scroll), we see what appears to be an error: the last letter of the very first word (ויקרא “He called”) is written smaller than the other letters: 

Sloppy penmanship? While we do not know the origin of the small aleph, the traditional explanation of its meaning is that the undersized aleph is Moses’ expression of humility. Aleph is the first letter of אני (“I”)—and Moses diminished its size out of humility, as if to say: God’s word is what is important, not mine.

Our Sages speak often and eloquently about the importance of anavah (“humility”). The Rabbis revered Abraham, Moses, and Hillel for their humility and held them aloft as exemplars. In pleading with God on behalf of the innocent people in Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham addressed God, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Moses, the paradigm of a leader, prophet, and sage, is considered the most anavah (“humble”) of all people. Talmud recounts (Pesachim 66a) that when Hillel comes to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) from Babylonia he is asked whether the laws of the Passover sacrifice override shabbat (i.e., may the paschal lamb be sacrificed on shabbat). He responds, employing logical reasoning, and is instantly elevated to the position of Nasi, president of the Sanhedrin. No sooner is Hillel designated the leader of the Jewish community than he is asked another question: If one forgets to bring the knife to slaughter the Passover offering to the Temple prior to shabbat, what do we do, since carrying the knife on shabbat is forbidden and does not override shabbat? Hillel, the newly selected leader, responds openly, honestly, and with deep humility: I don’t know; let’s see what the people do. And sure enough, the answer becomes evident when they walk outside and see that one man has inserted the knife into the wool of the sheep and another has placed it between the horns of a goat, both allowing the animal to carry the knife to the Temple.

Surely a strong and healthy ego is a good thing. Without it, one cannot survive, let alone thrive. But as a master of Musar (Jewish ethics) Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov (1749-1826) reminds us: “Human self-adoration is the strongest love that God implanted within the animal spirit…” (Cheshbon ha-Nefesh). This is both an acknowledgement that a robust ego is a gift from God, and simultaneously an unequivocal warning that excessive ego is a dangerous pitfall, turning a human being into a self-absorbed animal. 

Self-worship is all too common. Equally common is the desire to be adored by others. Musar teacher Alan Morinis (Everyday Holiness) tells a wonderful and funny story about this. Once, after finishing a talk, a woman approached him and began, “You have a wonderful, wonderful…” but then could not finish her thought. Morinis says that he imagined her completing the sentence, “way with words” or “presence.” He could virtually taste the adulation that was surely on the tip of her tongue. When the woman found her words and completed her thought, however, she said: “…wife.” And so we do well to hold close the admonition of Bachya ibn Pakuda (11th century author of Chovot ha-Levavot, “Duties of the Heart”), “All virtues are dependent on humility.” Humility is the gateway to developing other traits we would wish to have.

But it is not enough to appear humble. In fact, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (in Midot ha-Re-iya) pointed out that phony humility is detrimental to our wellbeing, and the difference between feigned humility and the real thing is not difficult to discern:
Genuine humility and lowliness increase health and vitality, whereas the imaginary (humility) causes illness and melancholy.  Therefore, one ought to choose for oneself the traits of humility and lowliness in their clear form, and thus become strong and valiant… Whenever humility brings about melancholy, it is invalid.  But when it is worthy, it engenders joy, courage and inner glory… At times we should not be afraid of the feeling of greatness, which elevates a person to do great things.  And all humility is based on such a holy feeling of greatness.

How, then, do we cultivate genuine humility? I love the way Rabbi Elyakim Krumbein expressed it: “Genuine anava [humility] says, ‘I am capable of doing much more, and therefore I must.’” Rabbi Krumbein reminds us that when we convert ego into a sense of obligation, we avoid excessive self-importance and retain the pure core of humility. The focus is not on our assets, but rather how we can use what we have to bless others.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman