Anavah–Humility: Understanding Our Place

Sources from essay by Rabbi Joshua Mikutis in The Mussar Torah Commentary

I want to suggest that core to navigating any uncertain time is anavah ("humility"). Humility is not about lowering ones self worth, but embarking on a deep understanding of the forces that surround us, shape us, and direct our actions. And an ideal engagement with humility is not surrender but a willingness to grapple with those absurd forces beyond our control and to proactively shape our reality into the world we seek to build. Key to anavah is knowing how to understand our own place in the world. Anavah should not diminish our sense of self but sharpen our understanding of the world to show us that failure is not permanent but a way of pushing us in a new direction.

-Rabbi Joshua Mikutis

(א) וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה עַתָּ֣ה תִרְאֶ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֶֽעֱשֶׂ֖ה לְפַרְעֹ֑ה כִּ֣י בְיָ֤ד חֲזָקָה֙ יְשַׁלְּחֵ֔ם וּבְיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה יְגָרְשֵׁ֖ם מֵאַרְצֽוֹ׃ {ס} (ב) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃ (ג) וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣ל שַׁדָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְהֹוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃ (ד) וְגַ֨ם הֲקִמֹ֤תִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתָּ֔ם לָתֵ֥ת לָהֶ֖ם אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן אֵ֛ת אֶ֥רֶץ מְגֻרֵיהֶ֖ם אֲשֶׁר־גָּ֥רוּ בָֽהּ׃ (ה) וְגַ֣ם ׀ אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃ (ו) לָכֵ֞ן אֱמֹ֥ר לִבְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵל֮ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָה֒ וְהוֹצֵאתִ֣י אֶתְכֶ֗ם מִתַּ֙חַת֙ סִבְלֹ֣ת מִצְרַ֔יִם וְהִצַּלְתִּ֥י אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵעֲבֹדָתָ֑ם וְגָאַלְתִּ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ בִּזְר֣וֹעַ נְטוּיָ֔ה וּבִשְׁפָטִ֖ים גְּדֹלִֽים׃ (ז) וְלָקַחְתִּ֨י אֶתְכֶ֥ם לִי֙ לְעָ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וִֽידַעְתֶּ֗ם כִּ֣י אֲנִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֱלֹ֣הֵיכֶ֔ם הַמּוֹצִ֣יא אֶתְכֶ֔ם מִתַּ֖חַת סִבְל֥וֹת מִצְרָֽיִם׃ (ח) וְהֵבֵאתִ֤י אֶתְכֶם֙ אֶל־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֤ר נָשָׂ֙אתִי֙ אֶת־יָדִ֔י לָתֵ֣ת אֹתָ֔הּ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹ֑ב וְנָתַתִּ֨י אֹתָ֥הּ לָכֶ֛ם מוֹרָשָׁ֖ה אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָֽה׃ (ט) וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר מֹשֶׁ֛ה כֵּ֖ן אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃ {פ}
(1) Then יהוה said to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh: he shall let them go because of a greater might; indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land.” (2) God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am יהוה. (3) I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name יהוה. (4) I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. (5) I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. (6) Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am יהוה. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. (7) And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, יהוה, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. (8) I will bring you into the land which I swore*swore Lit. “raised My hand.” to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I יהוה.” (9) But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk noticed something strange in the text and asked Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Varkaw about an earlier promise God had made to Moses: Vshamu l’kolecha - "They (the Israelites] will listen to you" (Exodus 3:18). If this promise did not come true, can it be the case that God's words have failed to come to fruition? Our second Rabbi Menachem Mendel parses the verse carefully. He explains that the text is very specific to say l'kole-cha rather than use b'kolcha —that is, "to your voice" rather than "in your voice"— implying a looser connection between Moses's words and the people. The text seeks to say, "It is your voice alone that the people will listen to, not the specific content of your words," since, at this point, the people are too spiritually and physically oppressed to understand the fine details of their redemption. However, even if they cannot hear Moses's words, they can hear his voice. They can tell that in their hour of sorrow and pain, God's servant is there for them.

-Rabbi Joshua Mikutis

The Chatam Sofer connects his understanding of the immediate importance of our longing for God to the Ramban's interpretation of God's famous and opaque self. description, ehyeh asher ehyeh, "I will be that I will be" (Exodus 3:14) as "Just as you are with Me, so I will be with you.' The Ramban and Chatam Sofer both suggest that God's presence is directly linked to our capacity to cleave to God. This is an empowering idea-our actions in the world can change the essence of the Divine. Moses may experience himself as alone and useless, but just as earlier he did not necessarily perceive the impact of his words on the oppressed Israelites, here he might miss that his engagement with God has divine repercussions.

-Rabbi Joshua Mikutis

When we find ourselves in moments of difficulty, a practice of ana-vah can push us to ask three questions: How might my impact be different than expected? How can I find the Divine in this moment?

How can the story of those who came before me support me at this moment? If we engage in this personal reflection, we can work toward following the path of Moses, who later in the Torah is noted to be "a very humble man, more so than any other human being on earth" (Numbers 12:3).

-Rabbi Joshua Mikutis

Questions to Ask

  • In times of failure, how have you been able to use anavah to understand your stumbling?
  • What forces do you think allowed Moses to rise to the occasion at their time of need?