Humility-Anavah: A Foundational Trait According to Mussar

Humility-Anavah: A Foundational Trait According to Mussar

Second  in a Series of Sermons on the Mussar Tradition of Judaism

Rabbi Dov Gartenberg

Thanks to authors Joseph Telushkin and Alan Morinis for many insights of this sermon

Parshat Behar-Behukotai  May8, 2010

If you go to the self-help shelves at your local bookstore you will be astonished by the huge number of volumes available for people who seek aid for their emotional and spiritual lives.  Many of these books offer facile and short cut claims on how to achieve happiness and fulfillment.  Writers on Kabbalah have achieved crossover success in marketing cheap and shallow versions of Jewish mysticism to populate the contemporary self help library. Buyer and Seeker beware! 

Yet there is a very powerful tradition in Judaism that does not offer quick short cuts, but lays out a path for us not only on how to be a better person, but how to relate to others with mindful  kindness, conscious integrity, and awakened  compassion.  This is the Mussar tradition. 

In this week’s portion, Behar Behukotai we read  Lev.26:3 “Im b’hukotai telechu v’et mitzotai tishmoru va’asitem otam.   If you will go by my laws, and if you observe my commandments, and you will do them.”   

Michael Fishbane, a biblical scholar and Jewish theologian writes, “The tasks of life are always already there,  outside the self, for one to do and fulfill them as the commandments of God. ”  But Fishbane also claims that Judaism not only recognizes that the law of God demands something of us, but that we also must seek to nurture the inner awareness that makes living a Jewish life more personal , tied to our peculiar life experience. 

This is reflected in the rabbinic reading of this verse.  One Midrash insists on changing the word  otam-them to  atem-you.   Thus the verse reads, ” and you shall make yourselves (instead of do them).  This means that in doing the commandments of the Torah you should strive to  make or refashion yourselves . 

Fishbane sees this  rabbinic reinterpretation of a Torah verse as a prime of example of how Jews take  old words of Scripture and see them anew as teachings and insight about  spiritual consciousness and self transformation. 

This is the way of Mussar.  Mussar is that part of our tradition that  attempts to open up our insides so that the outside (the commandments) become real and compelling to us.  Thus we fulfill  the commandments in a way that refashions ourselves.   

Mussar starts this process by focusing on refinement of  character traits.  This Shabbat I want to start with what Mussar identifies as one of the most important traits we should strive for.

Humility:  Anavah

What is humility according to Mussar? 

The prophet, Micah, says, 

Micah 6:8

He has told you, O man, what is good,

And what the Lord requires of you:

Only to do justice

And to love goodness

And to walk modestly with your God; (Using the root tzade nun ayin here)

“Why does Micah speak of walking humbly with God and not just of walking humbly?

Perhaps because if we are certain that God is on  our side we can easily become arrogant and even cruel.  Certain types of so called religious people walk arrogantly with God when they justify violent or cruel acts in the name of God.  (Telushkin) Mussar helps us work on walking humbly with God. 

All virtues and duties are dependent on humility according to the great Medieval Mussar teacher, Bahya Ibn Pakuda.   Humility-Anavah  is  the primary soul trait because it entails an unvarnished and honest assessment of who we are.  Maimonides clarifies this trait as well in the great law code, Mishnah Torah:  Humility-Anavah  is not the opposite of conceit, which would be self effacement, but rather stands between conceit and self effacement.  Humility is not an extreme quality, but rather a balance, moderate, accurate understanding of ourselves.  

Consider this visually.  Mussar places humility in between these extremes. 

Self debasement     humility    pride arrogance


Arrogance (Ge’ut), in contrast to humility-Anavah,  is accurately described by one modern Mussar teacher

“Generally,  man finds his delight in examining  his own virtues, in  discovering even the smallest of his positive attributes and the most minute faults of his fellows, for he can then find reason to be proud even when in the company of great ones whose little fingers are thicker than his loins. ”

Self effacement is also considered extreme in Mussar.    Here is a passage from the Talmud that hints at the spiritual problem of self debasement:

“Rava said: Who possesses haughtiness of  spirit deserves excommunication, and if he does not possess it he deserves excommunication.”

This is a peculiar teaching, but it insightfully addresses the problem of extreme tendencies.  Not only is there great spiritual danger in having an ego that is overinflated, but there is  just as much spiritual danger in being devoid of self esteem. 

Telushkin defines Anavah  as

  1. Not regarding ourselves as more important than other people, including those who have achieved less than we have. 
  2. Anavah implies judging ourselves not in comparison with others, but in light of our capabilities and tasks we believe God has set for us on earth.


The great Mussar Rabbi, Israel Salanter (19th century) said,  “I know that I have the mental capacity of a 1000 men, but because of that my obligation is also that of a1000 men. ”  The meaning is that If we have greater wisdom, we have greater responsibility to bring people to understanding.  If we are blessed with greater wealth, then we have a  greater responsibility  to help those in need.  If we have achieved great power, then we have an obligation to help those without power achieve justice.  

Why is humility as a trait deemed so important in Mussar? 

Consider the greatest figure of Judaism, Moshe:  Nowhere does the Torah refer to Moses as courageous, a defender of justice, or compassionate, although it is clear from various incidents in the Torah that he is all these things.  Rather the only description of Moses is this : “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (Num 12:3).  Astonishingly this is the only virtue attributed to Moses in the entire Torah.  (Telushkin)

If humility is so important, why is it not one of the 613 commandments? Michel of Zlotchov, a Hasidic master suggests this:   “Because if a person were to think, ‘Now I am fulfilling the commandment of being humble, and would then believe that he was becoming humble.  That would be the worst vanity of all.  Humility is not an achievement-but a target in the distance.

Being Anav-humble, allows to keep accomplishment in perspective.  ” All of the good things I do are a drop in the ocean in comparison to what I ought to do.”  Orchot Hahayim.

Finally, humility,  according to Morinis, is best understood as a sense of our place in the world.  This teaching can be rightly understood as a critique of our celebrity worshiping culture. Mussar both embraces the central Jewish teaching that each of us is made in the image of God. To believe this insight of the Torah  is to find a middle path between our hunger to occupy lots of space and our tendency when beaten down by life to occupy too little. 

“Occupy a rightful space, neither too much nor too little. Focus neither on your own virtues nor the faults of others. ”

Mussar then is a an old Jewish spiritual practice that helps us to, as our verse in Leviticus teaches, ‘to make ourselves”-to find the proper space in the world in order to do good, to imitate God, and to alleviate suffering. 


Elie Levy and I are starting a Mussar study, reflection, and meditation group that will meet weekly on Thursday mornings prior to the minyan at 7am in my study.  We have pushed back the start date to June 10, 2010.  If you are interested in beginning a journey on the path of Musar, please contact me at or 562 426-6413 ext 202.

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