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On healthy humility as Tisha b'Av approaches

28721407382_25ec12b993_zAs Tisha b'Av approaches, I've been thinking about ענוה / anavah, humility. About this quality, my friend and colleague Rabbi Barry Block writes:

The Mussar Institute’s recommended daily affirmation for ענוה (anavah – humility) is, “No more than my place, no less than my space.” The second half of the phrase suggests that one who is “too humble” isn’t humble at all. Now that’s a חידוש (chiddush, a new insight), particularly important for rabbis.

(That's from his essay Mussar for rabbis: humility.)

Humility and Tisha b'Av are often linked because of a story about how excess humility led to the destruction of the second Temple. (Rabbi Barry cites it in his essay.) In a nutshell, it goes like this: in 70 CE, the Romans -- in partnership with a Jewish collaborator -- sent to the priests an animal they had intentionally blemished, making it ritually unfit for sacrifice.

This put the priests in an impossible bind: either they could reject the Romans' sacrifice (thereby incurring Roman wrath), or they could sacrifice the blemished animal (thereby going against God), or they could kill the collaborator who had brought them the animal (thereby unjustly taking a life, and giving the impression that the punishment for presenting an unfit animal for sacrifice was the death penalty.)

They asked Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulus to decide which of these bad choices was least bad, and he declined to rule. He was paralyzed, and therefore he chose inaction. (He may not have seen it as a choice, but it was -- opting for inaction is itself an action.) His people needed him to occupy the space of leadership and responsibility, to make the call about how to proceed, and he didn't, or he couldn't. The choice before him was a terrible one, but in declining to choose, he made the situation far worse. His reluctance to occupy the space of leadership led to the destruction of the Temple, our place of connection with God. 

Lately I've been wearing a wristband emblazoned with words from Rabbi Simcha Bunim. The story goes that he carried two slips of paper in his pockets at all times, and on those papers were the words בשבילי נברא העולם (for my sake was the world created) and ואנכי עפר ואפר (I am but dust and ashes). Each of these is a necessary reminder, and each serves as a corrective to the other. When I'm feeling small or low or insignificant, I need to be reminded that all of creation came into being precisely in order that I might exist here and now. And when I'm feeling haughty or prideful, I need to be reminded that I am temporary and will die.

When I glance down, I never know which of the two phrases I'm going to see. But of the two phrases, I think the one I most often need to see is "For my sake was the world created." Many women struggle with the unconscious internalized sense that we are "supposed" to be quiet, or deferential, or to pursue peace with others even when the peacemaking comes at the expense of our own voice, our own truth, our own strength. (Men struggle with this too, of course, but this tends to systemically afflict women. See 9 non-threatening leadership strategies for women -- behind the humor, the ugly truths are all too real.)

Holding oneself back in order to please others (or in order to not risk offending others, which is a variation on the same theme) isn't humility. It's taking up (in R' Alan Morinis' words) "less than my space," and that's not a character strength, it's a character flaw. That's the sin of R' Zecharia ben Avkulus, which our sages teach led to the destruction of the place our people held most dear. Keeping silent in the face of injustice or untruth isn't a virtue, and it's often driven by the kind of fear I spoke about from the bimah on Shabbat. We diminish ourselves when we let fear rule us, and self-diminishing isn't humility and isn't healthy.

As Tisha b'Av approaches, what would it look like to relinquish the false humility of excess silence? To practice making difficult choices, and speaking difficult truths, and taking responsibility for one's power and one's ability to create change, even when so doing feels risky because of how others might respond? To take up exactly as much space as God intends each of us to inhabit -- knowing that we are dust and ashes, and also that we are reflections of the Infinite, precious and holy, entitled to enough room to stand in, entitled to enough air to breathe, obligated by virtue of our agency to work toward building a better world?