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On Humility

10/12/2020 01:06:36 PM


On Rosh Hashanah, which I know seems like eons ago, I spoke about the power of Humility. I referenced a story from the Talmud that serves as an origin tale for the prayer, Avinu Malkeinu.  The “Cliff Notes” version of the story is that Rabbi Eliezer was praying for rain and try as he did, he was unsuccessful in softening the heart of the Holy One of Blessing to bring rain to a thirsty landscape and people.  Once Rabbi Eliezer stepped down from the space before the ark, Rabbi Akiva stepped up and prayed deeply:  “Avinu Malkeinu….“Our Father, Our King, we have sinned before You.  Our Father, Our King, we have no other King but You.”  And tradition teaches, the rain fell as bountiful blessing in response to the prayer of Rabbi Akiva.  However, this Talmudic tale doesn’t end there. Added to it is a clarification so to speak. It teaches that the rain came not because Rabbi Akiva was a greater man than Rabbi Eliezer or that his prayer was any more passionate, poetic or inspiring.  Rather, as the Talmud teaches, it was because Rabbi Akiva maavir el midotav, he was one who overcomes his righteous indignations. That despite the fact that at times there were individuals who would wrong Rabbi Akiva, he would act with greater forgiveness than even the retribution owed to him.  And that this was the Rabbis’ definition of one who is humble – one who resists the opportunity to extract his “pound of flesh,” regardless of how justified he might have been to act otherwise. 

This lesson came to me as I was studying the history of the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, and I thought it made for a great sermon topic for the High Holy Days.  That said, it seems to me that this subject, Anavah, “Humility,” is too crucial and central to a just society that one reference on Rosh Hashanah doesn’t cut it.  According to the medieval rabbi, Bachya Ibn Pekuda, “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.”  Now humility may sound to some like a luxury (or a necessity) better reserved for those blessed with power, prominence and acclaim.  That perhaps the majority of us can’t quite afford to be too humble – thus suffering the slings of those who would use it against us.  But this midah (characteristic) of Humility is not meant to cause one to suffer fools.  Rather, as Rav Abraham Isaac Kook would teach, “Humility is associated with spiritual perfection.  When humility effects depression it is defective; when it is genuine it inspires joy, courage and inner dignity.”

In other words, the practice of Humility, a centering effort that reminds us regularly and continually of our very imperfection, is the pathway towards both the strengthening of our self-esteem as well as a more fluid and approachable self in the world. 

This week for 10@Noon as well as Shabbat, we are going to dive into the theme of Humility and see what opens for us.  I would argue that the purpose of prayer and celebration is not only about the affirmation of what is good and working for us in our own world; it is also about a  striving for a better self.  What might that look like for you?

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781