First, let me say that I am no expert in mussar. And in all honesty, I haven’t really even started. Right now I am only exploring the middot (character traits – middah, singular) that ring out to me as I prepare myself for the actual practice of mussar. From there I will pick the thirteen which I feel to be most applicable in my life and begin to focus on them one week at a time, journaling about my journey. However, from what I have read in Everyday Holiness, almost every middah hangs on anavah (humility). According to Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, in his book Duties of the Heart (as quoted by Morinis in Everyday Holiness), “All virtues and duties are dependent on humility.” And it makes sense. Once I learned the Jewish perspective on anavah, humility, I became drawn to it, realizing my deep lack of understanding of this character trait, as well as my deficiency of its possession. Here’s why…
When the word humility is mentioned, what comes to mind? Too many times our working definition of humility is self-abasement. My new, working definition of humility comes from Morinis in Everyday Holiness. My paraphrase is as follows:
Humility is occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little.
I think this is the best definition I’ve ever heard. It makes sense on so many levels. When we break down a character trait into a definition such as this, we are able to truly define it’s parameters, rather than it being some ethereal, elusive non-tangible. Let’s explore this definition for a moment.
If humility is “occupying our proper space, neither too much, nor too little,” it’s obvious the result when we occupy too much space. At the minimum this is pride, and at its extreme, narcissism. We become so wrapped up in ourselves that the boundaries between us and others is unseen. We quickly overstep those boundaries and invade someone else’s space, whether physically, socially or verbally. One example Morinis gave that I thought was really good was in regard to speech:
“…when someone shares a piece of news with you, do you come right back with your own concerns, filling the space they’ve opened, or do you make room to follow up what the other person has introduced?” 1
I have had this flaw as long as I can remember. I remember when a friend of mine first brought it to my attention. His bringing it to my attention hurt me, but it was a much needed exposure of a flaw in my character that brought it to the surface in order that I could deal with it, and not be oblivious to it. However, since I was only made aware of this, and not given any tools for tikkun (repair / undoing), I still have not overcome in this. Now, I have passed it on to my children. And seeing this blemish magnified in them, it has set off internal alarms that I did not understand until recently. Having a proper definition of this middah with well-defined parameters helps me not only to better identify the breach in our family composition, but gives me a more solid means by which to correct it.
On the opposite extreme is not occupying enough space. If we occupy too little space, we are not fulfilling our God-given role in the world. It is not stepping up to the plate for which you were created. Hillel tells us,
“In a place where there are no men strive to be a man.” (Avot 2:6)
Remember, “Birth is G‑d saying you matter.”2 And you really do. We all do. We all have our special role to play. And if we don’t fill up our alloted space, we are destined to fail others who are relying upon us.
For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20)
In this quote from the Apostle Paul, he reminds us of the exact same thing. We all have our role, and we must not only fill that role, but we must also be content with that role.
But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” (Romans 9:20)
“Now in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for honorable use, some for dishonorable. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from what is dishonorable, he will be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:20-21, ESV).
I believe humility is the starting point for this. Once we realize the space we are supposed to occupy, we can begin filling it properly and neither spilling out onto others, nor shrinking back from our responsibilities. Are you occupying your proper space?