Anavah: coming face-to-face with the truth about oneself, no matter how difficult that might be
The story is told of two fellows watching a third one swaying over a Mesillas Yesharim as he repeats to himself over and over, “I’m a gornisht (a nobody), I’m a gornisht…” As they take in the scene, one of the observers turns to the other and says with a smirk, “Ha! Look who thinks he’s a gornisht.”
That’s not a scenario one is likely to witness at mussar seder in yeshivos, but nevertheless, it makes an important point: Even the most worthwhile and noble things in This World can be perverted, and even the exalted trait of anavah, humility, can be turned into a caricature of itself.
Even someone who professes to believe in the importance of humility can miss the point of that trait entirely and thereby corrupt it beyond recognition. He can turn the possession of anavah itself into just another feather in the cap of arrogance adorning his expanding head. He’s a gornisht?! I’m the real gornisht!
It is in this vein that Rav Meir Simchah of Dvinsk offers a scintillating interpretation in Meshech Chochmah (Bamidbar 16:15) of Moshe Rabbeinu’s words, “V’lo harei’osi es achad meihem — I never harmed one of them,” in countering the claim of Korach’s group that he had sought to use his position of leadership to lord it over the Jewish People. The Meshech Chochmah explains that the use of the unusual term “achad meihem” means “even the greatest of them,” and that Moshe was saying he never sought to undermine or harm even the very greatest among the Jewish People.
But wouldn’t it have been a more persuasive case to make for his benevolent stewardship of Klal Yisrael were Moshe to assert that he never harmed even the most vulnerable “little people,” rather than its prominent members?
No, says Rav Meir Simchah. Those who affect humility without ever truly internalizing it have no problem being self-effacing toward the “little people.” They easily draw them near and “humbly” embrace them, because such behavior doesn’t cost them anything in psychological terms, and the fragile egos they nurse within themselves will not suffer as a result. The chasm of status and power separating them from those lower down in the societal hierarchy is so obvious that no one could possibly take the respect they show those people to mean they are their equals. To the contrary, they’re sure to have their reputations burnished as being true anavim.
Who is it that actually threatens the brittle self-image of the bogus anav? Those people, writes the Meshech Chochmah, who are seen as being his equal or even greater than him. He cannot afford, psychologically, to be seen as giving such people their due respect. To do so, after all, risks the possibility that those looking on will draw the “wrong” conclusion — in truth, the right one — that the people before whom he humbles himself are indeed greater than him.
And so, he is driven to tear down those on his level or above it, openly if feasible, but if not, then subtly, deviously, with behind-the-back whisper campaigns and the like. He takes secret delight when these great people stumble, because he believes that elevates him above them. He certainly is slow to offer even a grudging word of praise for them; to do so is simply too threatening to his wounded sense of self.
That is why Moshe, an authentic anav — indeed, the truly humblest of all men — highlighted the way he treated “achad meihem,” meaning “even the greatest of them.”
Such is the way of great, humble Jews. In Lech Lecha, Malkitzedek, identified by Chazal as Noach’s son Shem, comes out to greet Avraham on his return from war, bearing gifts of bread and wine. Avraham, in turn, gives maaser to Malkitzedek. Each defers to the other, and neither feels threatened by doing so.
Perhaps this insight into the dynamics of anavah, real and feigned, can shed new light on the machlokes that Rashi cites from the Midrash Tanchuma regarding the Torah’s description of Noach as “tamim hayah b’dorosav.” One Tanna asserts the Torah is praising Noach for being a tamim even in his morally degraded generation, which means he would surely have been even greater in a better era. Another Tanna disagrees, contending that perhaps, had he lived in the generation of Avraham, Noach wouldn’t have been held in any regard at all.
Elsewhere, Rashi explains that the word “tamim,” used to describe Noach, connotes that he was an “anav u’shfal ruach,” humble and of low spirit (see Avodah Zarah 6a). And it is in connection with that very trait of humility that the two midrashic opinions disagree over how to understand the phrase “tamim hayah b’dorosav.”
One view sees the Torah as lauding Noach. It reasons that if in a time when he rose so far above his societal peers, he managed to remain humble, how much humbler would he have been in a generation in which he was one righteous person out of many.
The other view, however, suggests the Torah might mean to convey that the humility Noach displayed in the generations preceding and following the Mabul came at little psychological cost, specifically because he was so much greater than all those around him. Had he lived when there was an Avraham, who would have completely overshadowed Noach, the limits of Noach’s humility might have been sorely tested.
There’s another story told, this one about a visitor to Kotzk who saw the chassidim there giving great honor to a particular man walking down the street. The observer was surprised at this, because the man seemed like just a simple, poor Jew.
He asked one of the chassidim, “This man you’re all in such awe of, is he perhaps a great talmid chacham?” “No,” came the reply, “he barely can read a mishnah.” “So is it that he has great yichus, tracing his lineage back to gedolim of the past?” “He descends from ten generations of shoemakers.” “Is he then, despite his worn-out clothing, a wealthy baal tzedakah?” “He barely has two kopecks to his name.”
Exasperated, the visitor blurted out, “Then what’s so special about him?” Said the chassid, “Very simple: He’s a big anav!” The visitor was incredulous: “He’s poor, unlearned, and of simple lineage — of course he’s humble!” But the Alexander Rebbe, upon hearing about this humble Jew, was amazed: “He’s poor, unlearned, and of simple lineage — and still an anav? What a Yid!”
That man walking down the Kotzk street really couldn’t afford to be humble. Precisely because he really had nothing else in his life with which to soothe his ego, he needed the ego boost that a bit of arrogance would have given him. And yet, difficult as it must have been, he opted to live in a world of reality, no matter the cost, over living in the make-believe world that the baal gaavah occupies.
We translate anavah as humility, but what it really means is choosing reality over fantasy, and coming face-to-face with the truth about oneself, no matter how difficult that might be.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 833. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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