The Fire Within the Bush

“Dirshu Hashem behimatz’o — seek G-d when He can be found, qara’uhu bihyoso qarov — call Him when He is near.””Shuvu eilai, veashuva aleikhem — Return to Me and I will return to you.”Contrasting images. The first is one of G-d initiating the repentance process, and man responding after Hashem has first made Himself available. The second is G-d’s cry for us to initiate, and then He will respond. A relationship is cyclic, feeding back upon itself. There is no clear initial point; each step gradually deepens the bond.

In Unsaneh Toqef, we find the following as part of the description of what the high holidays are like in heaven. “And a great shofar will be blown, and a small still voice will be heard, and the angels will be atremble, and panic and fear will grip them, and they will cry ‘Here is the day of judgment!'” The “small still voice”, the “qol demamah daqah” is a quote from Melachim I, from a lesson Hashem teaches Eliyahu hanavi. First the prophet is buffeted by a powerful wind, and G-d says, “I Am not in the wind”, then he hears a loud crash, “I Am not in the crash”, then a fire, and G-d says that He is neither there. Then “a small thin voice”. What sets the angels in panic? Not the great and mighty shofar, but the response within the human soul. What forces them to proclaim the day of judgment? Not the clarion call announcing that now is “He can be found”, but the person seeking Him, returning to G-d so that He will return to them.

Moshe rabbeinu’s first recorded prophecy, his sight of the burning bush, has a similar lesson.

2: And Hashem’s angel appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and, here! the bush burned with fire bo’eir ba’eish, and the bush was not consumed.3: And Moshe said, “I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, madu’ah lo yiv’ar haseneh — why the bush does not burn.”

4: And when Hashem saw that he turned to look, Hashem called him out of the midst of the bush, and said: “Moshe, Moshe!” And he said: “Here I am.”

In pasuq 2, a mal’akh appears to Moshe, and the bush is bo’eir ba’eish. However, Moshe turns aside from that vision. He turned to see that lo yiv’ar hanseh — no, it’s not really burning. There is a fire within the bush, only at the core. The mal’akh speaks mitoch, from within the bush. The truer revelation that Moshe rabbeinu saw beyond the angel was one if tzimtzum, Divine Constriction. When Moshe realizes this, the nevu’ah is elevated from a prophet’s speech to an angel to Moshe’s unique ability to speak “face to ‘Face'” with G-d. Moshe merited this nevu’ah because he was “anav mikol adam — more modest than any other man.” His anivus is a reflection and imitation of that very tzimtzum, which is how Moshe alone would turn to take another look.

The mal’akh appeared in the big, the flashy. The first glance made it seem that the whole bush was aflame. It’s like the shofar gadol blowing, announcing Hashem’s presence. The angel declared behimatz’o — here and now Hashem could be found. But Moshe’s response one to the qol demamah dakah, he saw Hashem limiting his presence to allow for a response, to demand derashah — seeking Him out. Realizing that you must respond, that you aren’t simply entitled, that is anivus. And therefore Moshe connected to the A-lmighty in a way no one else did before or since.

Defining Anavah

(Copied from a “Der Alter” post of mine, but Der Alter seems defunct. I copied the time-stamp from there. -mi 1/16/2008)

Is anavah really “humility”?

The basic problem of understanding the difference between the Rambam Hil Dei’os ch 1 and ch 2 is not anavah, but ka’as (anger). With ka’as he explicitly invokes the middle path in ch. 1, and yet calls on you to eliminate anger entirely in ch. 2. But the Rambam makes a distinction at the end of ch. 1. He’s describing two different ideals: the chokhom (wise person) is one who seeks the mean. The chassid (pious person) is one who goes beyond that to reduce his own “space”. We could extend that resolution to anavah too. (This is discussed at length, here.)

Personally, though, I prefer a different approach to anavah. I believe that anavah is the middle path. The extremes are ga’avah and shefeilus (lowliness). That’s why the Rambam’s pursuit of the middle path includes total anavah.

So then what’s anavah? Der Alter told his students that they should always carry around two cards, one in each pocket. On one you write “Bishvili nivrah ha’olam — the world was created for my sake.” On the other, “va’anochi afar va’eifer — but I am dust and ashes”. The first speaks of one’s potential, being in the Image of Hashem. The other, of what one has actually accomplished.

I would propose that anavah is a kind of mean between ga’avah and shefeilus by being a combination of both; a keen awareness of the gap between who you are and who you could be. Therefore, unlike shefeilus which says “Who am I to try anything?”, anavah is a powerful motivator. (See also anavah vs what I called “anvanus” in a discussion of 9 beAv and Purim.)

Anavah (Redux)

In responding to my first attempt to define “anavah” (on “Der Alter“) RYGB wrote, “According to RSRH, anavah is derived from anah, to respond. Perhaps an anav is one who feels an acharayus to answer for everything he does.”In preparing a devar Torah for my son’s bar mitzvah, I thought of a different spin on the idea.When we’re conversing with someone, what are we doing while they are talking? Do we spend the whole time searching for launching points for what we want to say? Or, do we actually listen to appreciate to what they are trying to relate? The former stance is that of ga’avah, of the hubris of believing that what we have to say and contribute is primary; certainly my insight is brighter, my chiddush (novellum) more inspiring, and my perspective more valuable. When when the anav speaks, he responds.

Dr. Alan Morinis, when defining anavah, points to the gemara (Berachos 6b) which states, “Anyone who sets a particular place for himself to daven, the G-d of Avraham stands in his aid, and when he dies, people say of him, ‘this was an anav, this was a chasid, this is a student of Avraham our father'”.

Perhaps the idea is that the ba’al ga’avah believes that the best world is one with the most him in it. Whereas anav knows he fits in a larger scheme of things. Therefore, rather than trying to impose his view, he perfects the world by seeing how he is supposed to fit, what his place is.

Saving One’s Own First

On Areivim, we’re discussing how history remembers or should remember Rudolf Kasztner. Yad Vashem is trying to rehabilitate his memory. Here is some of the metzi’us behind the question, from The Star:

Kasztner … headed the Relief and Rescue Committee, a small Jewish group that negotiated with Nazi officials to rescue Hungarian Jews in exchange for money, goods and military equipment.

In June 1944, the “Kasztner Train,” with 1,684 Jews, departed Budapest for neutral Switzerland. His negotiations also diverted 20,000 Hungarian Jews to an Austrian labour camp instead of a planned transfer to extermination camps, according to Yad Vashem.

But detractors accused Kasztner of colluding with the Nazis to spare his well-connected and wealthy Jewish friends, while hundreds of thousands of others were shipped to death camps.

The Israeli government sued Grunwald for libel on Kasztner’s behalf in a trial that lasted two years and riveted the nation. The court acquitted Grunwald of libel, concluding that Kasztner “sold his soul to the German Satan.”

Kasztner insisted his dealings with top Nazi officials, including Kurt Becher, an envoy of SS commander Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann, who organized the extermination of the Jews, were necessary to save lives.

Kasztner was demonized by the Israeli public. A year after he was killed, Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s ruling in the libel case, clearing his name.

One last note:

Kasztner himself didn’t board his famous train to freedom, instead staying behind and negotiating the further release of Jews, risking his own life.

So Kasztner saved his people at the possible expense of others, but it wasn’t self-motivated. To discuss the question in general:

Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankel is the “bible” of a school of psychology called Logotherapy. The majority of the book is his recollections of life in the camps and his observations of the people there.

In it he claims that the Holocaust cost us our most idealistic people; that anyone who survived had to have the ability to place saving themselves and their own ahead of others.

Speaking halachically, if the same number of people are going to live either way, is it appropriate to try to save your own? In other words, is Frankel right in calling such people less moral or idealistic? Or did he inadvertently reflect a Christian ethic rather than a Jewish one?

In the introduction to Maqdishei H’ by R’ Tzevi Hirsch Meisels he tells the following heart-wrenching story. A man came, r”l, because his son, his only child, was among 1,400 children on a train which according to rumor was headed for the crematoria. He had the opportunity to bribe his son’s way out. Should he risk it; is he permitted to?

RADK refused to provide a ruling. How can anyone take on a question so great without being able to collect his thoughts, without access to his library? The story continues (as translated by R’ Yoel Schwartz). The father replies:

“Rabbi, I have done my duty as the Torah requires me to do. I brought my question before the rabbi. There is no other rabbi here. If His Honor, the rabbi, cannot answer that it is permitted for me to redeem my child, that is a sign that he is not completely sure that the halacha permits [it]. If it were permissible without any doubts, certainly you would tell me so. To me this means that according to the halacha it is forbidden to me. I accept this with love and joy, and I shall not do anything to redeem him, because that is what the Torah commanded…”

All my pleadings to him not to put the responsibility on me were to no avail. He only repeated what he had said, with heartrending weeping. He fulfilled his words, and did not redeem his son. That whole day, Rosh Hashana, he walked and spoke to himself joyfully, saying that he merited to sacrifice his only son to God, since even though it was in his power to redeem him, he would not, seeing that the Torah did not permit him to do such a thing. This would be considered by the Holy One, Blessed is He, like the Binding of our Father Isaac, which also had taken place on Rosh Hashana.

Speaking on a more philosophical plane, it’s certainly the implication of the Shaarei Yosher’s definition of chessed that it would be appropriate to save someone closer to you at the expense of someone with whom you’re less connected. Chessed is motivated by enlarging one’s “I” to include ever more people. Self interest is described by Rav Shimon Shkop as a positive thing, one to be leveraged in this way to create chessed (loving-kindness), not abnegated. A few paragraphs, just to motivate reading the whole thing. Note that his quote of R’ Aqiva is a halachic one — chayekha qodemin (your life comes first).

HOWEVER, what of a person who decides to submerge his nature, to reach a high level so that he has no thought or inclination in his soul for his own good, only a desire for the good of others? In this way he would have his desire reach the sanctity of the Creator, as His Desire in all of the creation and management of the world is only for the good of the created, and not for Himself at all. At first glance one might say that if a person reached this level, he would reach the epitome of being whole. But this is why our Sages of blessed memory teach us in this Midrash that it is not so. We cannot try to be similar to His Holiness in this respect. His Holiness is greater than ours. His Holiness is only for the created and not for Himself because nothing was ever added to or could ever be added to the Creator through the actions He did or does. Therefore all His Desire could only be to be good to the created.

But what He wants from us is not like this. As Rabbi Aqiva taught us, “your life comes first.” [Our sages] left us a hint of it when they interpret the scripture “Love your neighbor as yourself” in a negative sense, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your peers.” In terms of obligation, it is fitting for a person to place his own good first.

In this, Rav Shimon Shkop would seem to indicate that Frankel’s comment draws more from Christianity’s influence on Western Civilization than Jewish values. After all, Christianity phrases its ethic in the positive sense, “Do unto others…” And so, they would not reach Rav Shimon’s conclusion that when all else is equal, it is fitting to place one’s own good first.

There are also grounds for asserting that in the very foundation of the creation of Adam, the Creator planted in him a very great measure of propensity to love himself. The sages of truth describe the purpose of all the work in this language, “The Infinite wanted to bestow complete good, that there wouldn’t even be the embarrassment of receiving.” This discussion reveals how far the power of loving oneself goes, that “a person is more content with one qav [a unit of measure] of his own making than [he would be of] two qavin that are given to him” — even if from the Hand of the Holy One! — if the present is unearned.

From here it should be self-evident that love of oneself is desired by the Holy One, even though “the wise shall walk because of it and the foolish will stumble over it.”…

Purim and Permanence

One of the questions that have pried on my conscience is exactly how we managed to let life return to normal in the past 6 years. 9/11 was supposed to make everything different, but no longer to we see all that much of the friendliness and helpfulness that was our culture for those first months.

And now, just two weeks ago, we again are immersed in tragedy. Who can blog on young boys killed, particularly on Purim? It would seem designed by the A-lmighty to have happened to boys whose death would echo across the whole Torah observant community. Boys from a Religious Zionist yeshiva, killed because they were the ones who needed to grab another few minutes in front of a seifer when everyone else was preparing to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Adar II. Thus awakening the chareidi sector with images of what they dream for their own sons.

Meanwhile, here in the Greater New York area we were morning a death that also seemed designed to unify the community. Of all people, Rav Zev Segal whose son is on the radio. And a type of death that left his whereabouts unknown, mobilizing many of the fine members of our various chesed organizations, and a crowd fathering worried about their radios as they wondered where his was throughout a morning’s show.

And just in case someone failed to see the unifying theme behind both events, the idea that we need to unify, there is an eerie element connecting them. Rabbi Segal was a survivor– and likely the last survivor of a previous attack on a yeshiva, the slaughter in the Chevron Yeshiva during the 1929 pogrom.

And so, the question that burns within me: How do we hold on to that unity? How do we not waste another opportunity for permanent change?

דברים כה:יז זָכ֕וֹר אֵ֛ת אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה לְךָ֖ עֲמָלֵ֑ק בַּדֶּ֖רֶךְ בְּצֵֽאתְכֶ֥ם מִמִּצְרָֽיִם׃
יח אֲשֶׁ֨ר קָֽרְךָ֜ בַּדֶּ֗רֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּ֤ב בְּךָ֙ כָּל־הַנֶּֽחֱשָׁלִ֣ים אַֽחֲרֶ֔יךָ וְאַתָּ֖ה עָיֵ֣ף וְיָגֵ֑עַ וְלֹ֥א יָרֵ֖א אֱלֹהִֽים׃
יט וְהָיָ֡ה בְּהָנִ֣יחַ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֣יךָ ׀ לְ֠ךָ מִכָּל־אֹ֨יְבֶ֜יךָ מִסָּבִ֗יב בָּאָ֨רֶץ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יְהוָֽה־אֱ֠לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֤ נַֽחֲלָה֙ לְרִשְׁתָּ֔הּ תִּמְחֶה֙ אֶת־זֵ֣כֶר עֲמָלֵ֔ק מִתַּ֖חַת הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם לֹ֖א תִּשְׁכָּֽח׃

Devarim 25:17 Remember what Amaleiq did to you on your way out of Egypt.
18 When they happened upon you on the way, and you were tired and exhausted, they cut off those lagging to your rear, and they did not fear God.
19 Therefore, when Hashem gives you peace from all the enemies around you in the land that Hashem your G-d is giving you to occupy as a heritage, you must obliterate all reminders of Amaleiq from under the heavens. You must not forget.

Rashi on our verse identifies Amaleiq with a philosophy of miqreh, happenstance. Thus the use of the word qarkha — happened upon you. There is also frequent mention of the gematria of Amaleiq being the same as that of safeiq, doubt (240). They taught of a world of accident, not purpose. This is why, in the original war against Amaleiq, Moshe’s role was to sit atop the mountain with his hands raised, and “As long as the Jewish people looked Heavenwards and humbled their hearts to their Father in heaven, they prevailed.” (Rosh haShanah 2aa)

The word “qarkha“, is somewhat ambiguous, allowing Chazal (cited by Rashi on Devarim to also be taken as a derivative of “qar“, cold — “who cooled you off on the way”. Amaleiq is also identified with a cooling off of the spiritual high and prestige Israel had after all the miracles of the first half of the book of Shemos. To quote the Tanchuma:

Amalek cooled you off in the presence of others. This may be likened to a boiling hot bath, which no person could enter, for fear of being scalded. One roughneck came along and jumped into the steaming water. Although he became scalded, he cooled it off for others; now others will say that it’s possible to enter this hot bath. Likewise, when the Jews left Egypt, at the time of the Exodus, G-d split the Sea for them and all the Egyptians were drowned in it. At that time, the fear of the Jews – and G-d – fell upon all nations of the world, as is written, “Then were frightened the Dukes of Edom..” (Shemos 15:15)

Combining these two, we get an image of Amaleiq who allows our spiritual peaks cool by making up excuses, how the event we found so moving and inspiring at the time can be explained away as coincidence or a single odd event, nothing to cause us to rethink “real life”.

Amaleiq stands for that very thing that is so bothering me — the mindset which avoids holding on to permanent improvement.

And so, Purim’s fight against Haman can be viewed as a battle to see the meaning in the events of our lives, and to refuse to simply “cool off” after them. That purim, lots, aren’t random, they are expressions of the Will of G-d. Whether it is Hashem’s postponing Haman’s attack until we had a chance to do teshuvah or whether it is the difference between the goat chosen in the Beis haMiqdash on Yom hakePurim to be headed upward to G-d, or downward to ruin.

This notion that Purim explains the way to make a change permanent dovetails well with ideas we have discussed in the past. In a thought on parashas Pequdei I wrote:

There is a famous Aggadita that explains why Moshe Rabbeinu could not be the one to take us into Eretz Yisrael. Anything Moshe did is permanent. This is important, because if it were possible to abrogate one thing that he did, it brings into question the permanence of the Torah. However, Hashem knew that the time would come when the Jews would deserve punishment. By having Joshua bring us into Israel, it made the choice of exile a possible punishment.

… On the eighth day the assembly was done by Moshe. The eighth day also parallels the Third Beis Hamikdosh, which will never be destroyed. Moshe was not merely participating in the consecration of the Mishkan, but also was demonstrating the permanence of the Messianic age. The Temple will not fall again, there will be no more exiles.

But what gave Moshe Rabbeinu’s actions the power of permanence?

We find that Hashem uses two adjectives to describe Moshe. The first is anav, modest….

R. Yochanan Hasandler (Avos 4:14) describes what gives permanence to a congregation. “Any congregation which is lesheim Shamayim will end up existing, and congregation which is not lesheim Shamayim will not end up existing.”

Perhaps this too is the source of the permanence of Moshe Rabbeinu’s actions. Just as a congregation that is lesheim Shamayim endures, so too other activities.

In turn, when defining anavah we looked at Esther’s willingness to step forward “if it’s for this very time that you reached royalty” and how stepping forward and making something of herself required “ka’asher avadti avadti – as I am lost, so I will be lost. A balance between knowing who you are capable of being and who you aren’t.

And so, Esther too explains that road to real, permanent, change.

And, as we noted last week, Purim is permanent in a way the other holidays isn’t. It alone has a role that doesn’t end with the messiah.

And this would explain why the megillah’s story doesn’t end with the Jews’ victory in defending themselves. It continues on to tell us how to revisit the events of Purim each year. And then, the short chapter 10… After everything the king goes back to setting taxes, and Mordechai is liked by most of Jewry. Not all, this is no fairy tale ending. Everything is back to the same, but it isn’t… There is commitment for the future, and thus the journey to the second Beis haMiqdash began.

A while ago I wrote about Greek notions of circular time in contrast to Judaism, which gave the notion of progress to the world. Not that we deny circular time; each year at the seder, “a person is obligated to see himself as if he himself left Egypt”. However, in addition to the repetition of the shanah, we have the notion of incremental progress of the yom. Eis and zeman. We have the lessons we can take from that day’s new events, and the concept of chazarah, reviewing the lessons we would otherwise relegate to ancient history.

And so, to return to our opening question… How do we hold on to that unity that so clearly was engineered by the A-lmighty emerge from the tragedy of the past two weeks? First, take the lesson. Notice the unity and note how Hashem was teaching us something. Hislamdus.

Second, revisit it. Today is Purim. Take responsibility for the poor you give your money to, and when you meet them, treat them as people, not tzedaqah cases. When giving out mishloach manos, think about and appreciate the friends and neighbors who stop by. Think about renewing that friendship with the person who dropped off this year’s list but still had you among their names. And perhaps you might read this with time to still bring one last package to someone outside of your normal circle. Someone who approaches G-d differently than you do, who dresses differently and has a different social group. If enough of us bridge the gap, that gap could disappear.

In the Name of the One Who Said It

(I think this will be the last post in this series on ge’ulah.)

גדולה תורה יותר מן הכהונה ומן המלכות, שהמלכות נקנית בשלשים מעלות, והכהונה בעשרים וארבע, והתורה נקנית בארבעים ושמונה דברים, ואלו הן:… והאומר דבר בשם אומרו. הא למדת: כל האומר דבר בשם אומרו מביא גאולה לעולם, שנאמר “ותאמר אסתר למלך בשם מרדכי.”

Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: … and (#48) saying something in the name of its speaker. Thus we have learned: One who says something in the name of its speaker brings ge’ulah to the world, as is stated (Esther 2:22), “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.”

– Beraisa, Avos 6:6

What is it about giving credit when repeating something that it alone is singled out for mention as the final item on the beraisa‘s list, as though it was the loftiest of the qualities necessary to acquire Torah? And more startling – this is the means to bring the ge’ulah? Right. Yes. Proper. Of course. But what does giving credit for a thought have to do with redemption?

This conclusion is drawn from verse about Esther. Somehow this trait shows why Esther had what it took to not only spiritually cause the redemption from Haman’s plan, but to merit to be the aegis by which Hashem impemented that ge’ulah. We can go beyond that “somehow”, though. Because the Torah give us an archetype of a person in a redemptive role, and even focuses our attention on the qualities that were the key to his uniqueness. Moshe Rabeinu, who is described as being the world’s greatest in three domains: anavah, as an eved Hashem, and in his prophecy.

Here are some of the conclusions about anavah that we have explored in the past:

  • Anavah is the emulation of Hashem’s tzimtzum (“constricting” Himself to make “room” for us, so to speak). It is this constriction that made Moshe the greatest of all prophets — both in his making “room” in his soul for Hashem’s word, but also in Moshe Rabbeinu’s greater insight into what Hashem is all about.
  • Anavah is the middle path between ga’avah (egotism) and shefeilus (lowliness). This might be why the Rambam recommends the Middle Path with respect to all middos (Dei’os ch 1) but advises going to the extreme with respect to anavah (2:3). It’s the ultimate pursuit of a blend of the dei’ah‘s actual extremes.
  • Because of this, anavah motivates. It doesn’t lead me to believe I am too puny to get anything done, nor have me complacent in my accomplishments, real or imagined. We looked at a number of figures from history who erred in either direction, and portrayed Esther as an example of someone who found the proper balance. She accepts Mordechai’s “perhaps it was just for a moment like this that you came to royalty” as well as being willing to say “if I am to be lost, I will be lost”.
  • In the same essay I suggested that anavah therefore also brings happiness, contentment with one’s lot, one’s role to play in history. Thus Esther’s anavah leads to “when Adar enters, we increase in joy.”
  • This is why an enigmatic gemara defines an anav as someone who always prays in his maqom qavu’ah (permanent, established, location). Anavah is having one place in the big whole.
  • Rav SR Hirsch links anavah to the word “anah“, to respond (the thesis of the same essay as the previous point). This ties together the notion of tzimtzum, leaving room for the other, with the notion of finding my place and role in the big picture (which in turn requires the balance between knowing the significance of my place and knowing that it’s not everything).
  • And last, I suggested that this is how one gains permanence to one’s accomplishments. By acting toward Hashem’s plan, lesheim Shamayim, one is promised permanence. This is why Moshe couldn’t bring us into Israel, because exile was inevitable. And why “a congregation” — and “a dispute” — “which is for the sake of heaven, it’s end is to be eternal.”

“Listen” to how well the emerging picture dovetails to Rav Shimon Shkop’s words:

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” (Pirqei Avos 1:14) It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts.

This notion of an engine running the process we call history is also a theme I touched on before.

When you drop a drop of ink into a cup of water, the ink spirals around in some chaotic pattern and eventually diffuses until the entire liquid is a uniform light blue. Even though each time you repeat the experiment the dance and spiral is different, something about it in the general is predictable. If you had different snapshots of the sequence that were significantly far enough apart in time, you could place them in historical order. Entropy always increases until it reaches the maximum. The system runs a certain way, reaching equilibrium.History also has a known final state — the Messianic Era. The colorless, pure potential of this world will be eventually assigned a meaning represented by the sky-blue of techeiles, of the vision of sapphire paving stones under the heavenly throne during the revelation at Sinai (Exodus 24:10). Even though people have free will, and therefore how the process unfolds is not fixed, the general parameters are known. And, like the ink in the water, it’s hard to understand the purpose of any particular dance or spiral in the process of history. But, we are tending toward an equilibrium.

And that means anything not in the equilibrium state will eventually cease to exist. At the end, there is no clear water. And, at the end, there is no evil. Evil must inherently destroy itself, or else there could be no guarantee of that Messianic equilibrium.

To the extent that we work with Hashem’s process, our actions are part of the final end-state, and thus gain permanence. The only way we can make an eternal contribution to the universe is buy signing on to that process. This is akin to the words of Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi, R’ Sir Jonathan Sacks (A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion, pp. 39-41, 47, as quoted recently by R’ Gil Student):

[T]he Baal Shem Tov–founder of the Hassidic movement in the eighteenth century–said that the Jewish people is a living Sefer Torah, and every Jew is one of its letters. I am moved by that image, and it invites a question–the question: Will we, in our lifetime, be letters in the scroll of the Jewish people?

At some stage, each of us must decide how to live our lives. We have many options, and no generation in history has had a wider choice. We can live for work or success or fame or power. We can have a whole series of lifestyles and relationships. We can explore any of a myriad of faiths, mysticisms, or therapies. There is only one constraint–namely, that however much of anything else we have, we have only one life, and it is short. How we live and what we live for are the most fateful decisions we ever make.

We can see life as a succession of moments spent, like coins, in return for pleasures of various kinds. Or we can see our life as though it were a letter of the alphabet. A letter on its own has no meaning, yet when letters are joined to others they make a word, words combine with others to make a sentence, sentences connect to make a paragraph, and paragraphs join to make a story. That is how the Baal Shem Tov understood life. Every Jew is a letter. Each Jewish family is a word, every community a sentence and the Jewish people through time constitutes a story, the strangest and most moving story in the annals of mankind.

That metaphor is for me the key to understanding our ancestors’ decision to remain Jewish even in times of great trial and tribulation. I suspect they knew that they were letters in this story, a story of great risk and courage. Their ancestors had taken the risk of pledging themselves to a covenant with God and thus undertaking a very special role in history. They had undertaken a journey, begun in the distant past and continued by every successive generation. At the heart of the covenant is the idea of emunah, which means faithfulness or loyalty. And Jews felt a loyalty to generations past and generations yet unborn to continue the narrative. A Torah scroll that has a missing letter is rendered invalid, defective. I think that most Jews did not want theirs to be that missing letter…

I am a Jew because, knowing the story of my people, I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere; I have a past, and if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am a Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me. I continue their journey because, having come this far, I may not let it and them fail. I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll. I can give no simpler answer, nor do I know of a more powerful one.

Anavah: knowing that one is only one letter, but that anyone could make oneself critical to the kashrus of the entire scroll.

This series on ge’ulah started with the Qetzos haChoshen’s analysis of a medrash. To quote myself:

R. Shimon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He [– HQBH], came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties. Some said, “Let him be created,” while others urged, “Let him not be created.” … Love said, “Let him be created, because he will dispense acts of love”; Truth said, “Let him not be created, because he is compounded of falsehood”; Righteousness said, “Let him be created, because he will perform righteous deeds”; Peace said, “Let him not be created because he is full of strife.” What did Hashem do? He took Truth and cast it to the ground. Said the ministering angels before HQBH, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why do You despise Your seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!” As it is written [in the continuing words], “אֱ֭מֶת מֵאֶ֣רֶץ תִּצְמָ֑ח — Let truth bloom up from the earth.” [v. 12]

-Bereishis Rabba 8:5

Man was created with Hashem’s knowledge that with the existence of free-willed beings, Truth would be submerged and have to emerge over time through the process we call history.

The Qetzos haChoshen has a beautiful comment on this medrash. He noted that here truth is described as tatzmiach, blooming. When we make the berakhah after an aliyah, we say “vechayei olam nata besocheinu — eternal life [or perhaps: life of the world{-to-come}] was planted within us.” The Qetzos explains: Torah is the seed from which our medrash tell us Truth blooms.

The process then, is the sprouting of truth. The anav knows to contribute to it, that he may be a mere screw, a single letter, that will not be famous or recorded in the annals of history. But he can make himself critical to reaching the end. Part of eternity.

Now we can finally answer my opening question. Why is Esther’s citing Mordechai as her source when telling the king of the plot to kill him so critical to redemption, and the final skill necessary to acquire Torah? It combines all these elements. It’s an anav‘s acknowledgment of her role in history. By giving credit she declares herself part of a greater whole, she has her own place in a bigger picture. And she does so with respect to the revelation of truth.

To close with another medrash (with thanks to MBD for turning it into song lyrics, and to Nachum Segal for playing them on the radio last week):

שנו רבותינו בשעה שמלך המשיח נגלה, בא ועומד על הגג של בית המקדש והוא משמיע להם לישראל ואומר: “ענוים הגיע זמן גאולתכם, ואם אין אתם מאמינים ראו באורי שזרח עליכם.” שנאמר: “קומי אורי כי בא אורך וכבוד ה’ עליך זרח… והלכו גוים לאורך, ומלכים לנגה זרחך” (ישעיהו ס:א,ג).

The Rabbis taught: As the time that the messianic (i.e. annointed) king is revealed, he will come and stand on the roof of the Beis haMiqdash. And he makes himself heard to Israel and says, “Anavim – Modest Ones! The time for your redemption has arrived. And if you do not believe, look with my light that is dawning upon you.” As it says “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of Hashem has dawned upon you…. And nations shall walk by your light, and kings by the brightness of your dawning.” (Yeshaiah 60:1,3)

Pesiqta Rabasi 31

At the time of redemption, how does the mashiach refer to us? As anavim.

A Berakhah for Chassidus Spinka

כִּ֤י שֶׁ֨בַע׀ יִפּ֣וֹל צַדִּ֣יק וָקָ֑ם וּ֝רְשָׁעִ֗ים יִכָּשְׁל֥וּ בְרָעָֽה׃

When [asher] a leader sins and does one of the commandments of Hashem his G-d which he should not do, in error, and expresses guilt.

-Vayiqra 4:22

“אשר נשיא יחטא” – (ת”כ הוריות פר”ג) לשון אשרי אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו נותן לב להביא כפרה על שגגתו ק”ו שמתחרט על זדונותיו:

When [asher] a leader sins” – a language of enrichment [ashrei], “Enriched is the generation that its leader gives heart to bring an atonement for his errors, ad a fortiori if he regrets his intentional violations.

-Rashi (ad loc)

Part of being human is having limitations. We have seen in the past year numerous rabbis charged with this crime or that. Usual responses range from blaming the antisemitism of the DA for prosecuting a crime most people get away with and isn’t so terrible to a tearful “Al Cheit” admission of regret.

Rarely do you find a man of such stature and such a love of spreading Torah that he stands up before the community and asks them to use his error as a cautionary tale in their own lives. Rav Naftali Zvi Weiss, the Spinka Rebbe, did just that before an audience reported as being “in the thousands” on the subject of financial integrity. The rebbe, his gabbai, and others were charged with committing tax fraud in order to fund the Spinka yeshivos. He pled guilty in court shortly before the event, which was triggered by other news of the summer. Even if reports were exaggerated (as is typical for partisan news sources in general),  the crowd was large. “[A]n overflow crowd of thousands packed the main building of the Vizhnitz community.” (Forward) You can hear his talk, given last July, here (at 26:50, Yiddish and English). In addition, the talks were available live on line in streaming audio.

The Spinka Rebbe started by gathering a team of accountants, lawyers and auditors to go through his own institutions’ records. Systems were put in place to prevent a repeat Then he collected the funds to subsidize their availability for other tzedaqos looking to stay on the straight and narrow. Glatt Yosher, as the Yekkes would put it.

Everyone fails sometimes. The question is how to respond to their failures. (With all due respect to the current genre of Orthodox hagiographies, which leave you thinking the righteous were perfect since birth.)

There is someone I greatly respect (who reads this blog, so I’m about to embarrass him) largely because he too responded so positively when he saw the cause of his firm’s crash in his own shortcomings. And rather than blame the market, the investors, bad luck, or whatever, he not only turned his own life around, but shared what he learned to help thousands. And has no problem saying, “I messed up” in order to do so. Placing others before his own kavod.

Getting back to Chassidei Spinka, let me close with the promised berakhah:

כִּ֤י שֶׁ֨בַע׀ יִפּ֣וֹל צַדִּ֣יק וָקָ֑ם וּ֝רְשָׁעִ֗ים יִכָּשְׁל֥וּ בְרָעָֽה׃

For a righteous man can fall seven times and rise, but the wicked shall stumble upon evil.

-Mishlei 24:16

The righteous are righteous because of how they get up after they fall. May Spinka’s coming rise be with the proverbial speed of Yaakov’s son Naftali, swift as a Zvi (deer) hastening our redemption.

אל תהי ברכת הדיותות קל בעינך

What is Frumkeit?

The word “frum” has become a near-synonym for Orthodox. How this came to be is noteworthy.

“Frum” descends from the German “fromm“, meaning pious or devout. In pre-war Yiddish, usage appears to have varied widely. On the one hand, those who named their daughters “Fruma” clearly thought being frum as complementary. On the other, there was an idiom, or as Rav Aharon Kotler often put it, “Frum iz a galech; ehrlich iz a Yid — the town priest is ‘pious’, a Jew is refined.” I also heard the first part from Bergers of that same generation, “frum iz a galech“.  Admittedly, both data points from Lithuanian Iddish.

How did the word “frum”, then, ever catch on in the Yeshiva world, a community that aspires for continuity with the yeshivos of Lithuania? How did a word go from being a scornful description of the wrong kind of religiosity to a self-label?

I think that’s it’s for the same reason why kids who are eating at McDonald’s are branded “at risk”, but those who are chronic liars are not. The first group are “at risk” in the sense of their risk of leaving the community and no longer staying exposed to our values — and thus losing the likelihood of returning. Which means we’re defining ourselves by how we differ from non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews — not by what’s most important.

To some extent, when we use it as a self-identification, we are still thinking of frum in its original, ritual centric, meaning. A frum Jew is one who belongs to our community, and thus is following Orach Chaim, Even haEzer and Yoreh Dei’ah. And as implied by my comparison, this is an important threshold — it’s the line between someone who wishes to remain influenced by our teachings and culture, and those who do not. But it does not accurately reflect priorities. “Ehrlich is a yid.”

It is the original derogatory usage which is clearly the starting point for Rav Shelmo Wolbe’s essay on Frumkeit, in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. R’ Wolbe takes the informal usage of yore and gives it a robust, specific, technical meaning. In his hands, the word “frumkeit” refers to an etiology for a specific kind of cul-de-sac on the path of religious growth. Rav Wolbe opens:

וְאָמַר “סֹלּוּ! סֹלּוּ! פַּנּוּ-דָרֶךְ! הָרִימוּ מִכְשׁוֹל מִדֶּרֶךְ עַמִּי.”

And He will say, “Build it up! Build it up! Clear the way! Lift the stumbling-block out of the way of My people.

– Yeshaiah 57:14

On the narrow path to Truth in serving G‑d there is a major impediment which is called “frumkeit” (religiosity) – a term which has no clear and exact translation. “Frumkeit is the natural urge and instinct to become attached to the Creator. This instinct is also found amongst animals. Dovid said, “The lion cubs roar for their prey and ask G‑d for their food” (Tehilim 104:21). “He gives to the beast his food and to the young ravens who call to Him” (Tehilim 247:9). There is no necessity why these verses should be understood as metaphors [and therefore they will be read according to their literal meaning]. Animals have an instinctive feeling that there is someone who is concerned that they have food and this is the same instinct that works in man – but obviously at a higher level. This natural frumkeit helps us in serving G‑d. Without this natural assistance, serving G‑d would be much more difficult.

As you may have noticed following this blog, I am a strong advocate for a thoughtful and passionate approach to religious observance. As the name says, a fusion of passionate aish with the rigor of das’s law-based rite forming a new thing, a new word, “AishDas“. But in my discussion of thoughtful Judaism, I have always presumed the antonym of thoughtless Judaism, observance based on habit, on culture. Putting on tefillin merely because “that’s what is done.”

Rav Wolbe notes a different alternative to thoughtfulness — instinct. To Rav Wolbe, frumkeit is an instinctive drive to be close to the Creator. It is not even specific to humans; the frumkeit instinct is what King David refers to when he writes, “כְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף, וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵ-ל אָכְלָם — lion cubs roar at their prey, and request from G-d their food.” (Tehillim 104:21) And, “נוֹתֵן לִבְהֵמָה לַחְמָהּ, לִבְנֵי עֹרֵב אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאוּ — He gives the animal its food, to the ravens’ offspring who cry.” (147:9)

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Rav Wolbe explains:

However this frumkeit, as in all instinctive urges that occur in man, is inherently egoistic and self-centered. Therefore frumkeit pushes man to do only that which is good for himself. Activities between people and actions which are done without ulterior motivations are not derived from frumkeit. One who bases his service of G-d entirely on frumkeit remains self-centered. Even if a person places many pious restrictions on himself – he will never become a kind person and he will never reach the level of being pure motivated. This is why it is necessary that we base our service of G-d on commonsense (da’as). (Study Sotah 22b lists 7 types of activities which it labels as foolish piety. Each one of them is a manifestation of frumkeit without commonsense). Commonsense has to direct our service of G-d. From the moment we desert commonsense and act only according to frumkeit, our Divine service becomes corrupted. This is true even for a person on the level of a Torah scholar.

Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

A while back I posted about something I called the paradox of performing mitzvos bein adam lachaveiros lishmah — doing interpersonal mitzvos for the sake of the mitzvah:

What is the purpose of such mitzvos? To develop feelings of love and caring toward others; to expand our natural focus on ourselves to include others. Does the lishmah (lit: for itself) mean doing the mitzvah for the sake of doing a mitzvah? If it does, then we are not focusing on caring for other people, we are focusing on Hashem. On the other hand, if we define lishmah as being “for the purpose for which we were given the mitzvah (as best we can understand it)”, we would conclude that mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro “for itself” means doing it without thought to its being a mitzvah. As I said, a paradox.

Rav Wolbe quotes the Alter of Slabodka’s treatment of this question:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha komakhaand you shall love your peers like yourself.” That you should love your peer the way you love yourself. You do not love yourself because it is a mitzvah, rather, a plain love. And that is how you should love your peer.

To which Rav Wolbe notes, “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.

One must approach a mitzvah with a drive to see the deed done, rather than the self-interested drive to be the one doing it. This is “mimaaqim qarasikha Hashem — from the depths I call out to you, Hashem.” I reach for G-d not while instinctively grasping for loftiness, focusing on how can I make me more lofty, but when I subdue myself for the sake of the deed. To honor Shabbos out of a sense of honor, to give to the poor because one feels such love and empathy that nothing else would be thinkable.

This is why mussar is primarily a study of da’as, of wisdom and thoughtfulness.

Esther’s Modesty – Adar’s Joy (Anavah and Anvanus)

Yoshiahu’s Downfall

The only qinah, elegy, that we recite on Tish’ah beAv that dates back to the days of Tanakh (other than the Book of Eichah itself) is Yirmiyahu’s qinah for King Yoshiahu. Yoshiahu was raised by one of the more idolatrous of our kings, Menasheh. Menasheh managed to so suppress Torah that Yoshiahu was taken by the scroll he found in the Beis HaMiqdash. Yoshiahu lead a rather successful religious revival. The gemara describes the generation as one that even in the children knew greater details of tum’ah and taharah than did the rabbis of the Talmud. Successful, but imperfect. There were still homes where idols were worshipped. They would be hidden, for example (an example referenced in the qinah), they would paint an image on the backs of their doors, so that if anyone would inspect the home, it would be hidden between the door and the wall. The style was to have a split door, 1/2 opens on each side. Therefore, they could even honestly say, whenever the doors were open and therefore the image split, that there was no idolatry in their home.

Yoshiahu was unaware of this. He thought the revival was complete. When Par’oh Necho wanted to lead an army through Israel on the way to a war, Yoshiahu wanted to rely on Hashem’s promise, “a sword will not enter your land.” Yirmiyahu warned him, that no, we didn’t merit that level of protection. Yoshiahu didn’t listen to him. Egypt still needed to travel, so since they were refused safe passage, they attacked. Yoshiahu was fatally wounded, and confessed his error to Yirmiyahu in his final breath.

Why? What blinded such a righteous king, a man Rav Hillel thought merited to be the messiah, to the message of the navi?

Interestingly, in the qinah, Yirmiyahu refers to the wicked of the generation as “leitzanim”, ridiculers. Not as wicked, sinners or idolaters. Again, why?

Leitzanus, ridicule, is a lack of yir’ah. It’s an inability to accept the significance of the truly important, of dealing with the feelings of awe and fear that that engenders. Leitzanus is therefore a symptom of ga’avah, egotism. When someone has an over estimation of his own importance, he has no room to acknowledge anything else as perhaps being more important, he can’t accept the insecurity fear engenders. A natural response would therefore be leitzanus, belittling it.

Ga’avah also demotivates one to improve himself. I’m so good, my flaws are minor ones. I am reluctant to suggest this, but perhaps Yoshiahu, living in a culture that overly promoted in egotism, was tinged with some of that flaw himself. Therefore, he was incapable of believing that his religious reawakening was imperfect.

Shaul’s Downfall

In the haftorah for parashas Zachor, King Sha’ul fails in his duty to kill Amaleiq. He does not destroy all of their livestock, and leaves the battle before killing the Amaleiqi king, Agag. The navi Shemu’el takes Sha’ul to task for this shortcoming. “And Shemu’el said, ‘Although you are little in your own sight, aren’t you the head of the tribes of Yisra’el? And Hashem anointed you king over Israel.’” (Shemu’el I 15:17) Sha’ul eventually admits his guilt. “And Sha’ul said to Shemu’el, ‘I have sinned; for I have violated Hashem’s commandment and thy words; because I feared the people and listened to their voice.” (v. 24) Sha’ul, rather than acting like a king and teaching the people to follow Hashem’s will, allowed himself to be lead by his subjects. What does Shemu’el identify as Sha’ul’s failing? Sha’ul didn’t realize his own self-worth, and therefore does not live up to his potential and role in life.

Esther’s Success

In the story of Purim, Esther faces the same dilemma. Mordechai calls upon her to use her position as queen to save the Jewish people. She balks, and Mordechai counter-argues. “For if you are absolutely silent at this time, then will relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows — im la’eis kazos higa’at lemalkhus, perhaps it was just for a moment as this you came to royalty?” (Esther 4:14)

There is a second link between Esther’s anavah and redemption in her repeating something in Mordechai’s name rather than get personal credit:

Torah is greater than the priesthood or sovereignty, for sovereignty is acquired with thirty virtues, the priesthood with twenty-four, and Torah is acquired with forty-eight qualities. These are: … and (#48) saying something in the name of its speaker. Thus we have learned: One who says something in the name of its speaker brings ge’ulah to the world, as is stated (Esther 2:22), “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.”

– Beraisa, Avos 6:6

Unlike her ancestor, Sha’ul, or Yoshiahu, Esther rises to her calling. (Her first cousin, Mordechai, is described as a descendent of Kish, which the midrash presumes to be the same Kish as Sha’ul’s father.) What did Esther have that Sha’ul lacked?

If not for the Anvanus of Zechariah ben Avqulos…

To explain that, I would like to introduce one more story. In the progression of events that lead to the downfall of the second Beis haMiqdash, Nero Caesar presented a healthy calf to offer to the Beis haMiqdash as a test of their loyalty, but Bar Qamtza made some kind of blemish in it that invalidated it as an offering. The Rabbis wanted to offer it anyway, since the risk to life outweighs the halakhah. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, saying that people would think that it means that blemished animals may be offered. Then they wanted to kill Bar Qamtza, so that he could not report back to the Romans. Again, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, as he thought it would teach people that the punishment for damaging an offering was death. Nero heard that his offering was refused, was convinced that the Jews were in rebellion, and after checking some portents, decided to attack. The gemara interrupts the story to give us Rabban Gamliel’s assessment, “Because of the anvanus of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos our Temple was destroyed, our sanctuary burnt, and we were exiled from the land.”

There is a fundamental difference between anvanus and anavah, the laudable trait of modesty. Anavah is an awareness of our true worth and potential. It’s modesty that comes from knowing how much more one is capable of accomplishing. Anvanus, on the other hand, is crippling. It’s a lack of self-esteem, so that one does not rise to the challenge. Sha’ul was “little in [his] own sight,” he shared Rav Zechariah ben Avqulus’s anvanus and failed to accomplish the whole mission of his reign.

Pesachiah is Mordechai

The Mishnah (Sheqalim 5:1) lists those appointed for special duties in the Beis haMiqdash, naming the appointees. (The Yerushalmi opens with a dispute as to whether these were the appointees at the time this mishnah was first composed, or exemplary holders of each job.) Among them:

 …פתחיה על הקינין. “פתחיה” זהו מרדכי. ולמה נקרא שמו “פתחיה”? שהיה פותח דברים, ודורשן, ויודע בשבעים לשון.

Pesachiah [was the appointee] over the birds [sold to those who needed tahor birds for their offering].

“Pesachiah” is Mordechai. And why was his name called “Pesachiah”? Because he opened [pasach] words [of Torah], expounded upon them, and knew [all] seventy languages.

The Yerushalmi (21b in the vilna ed.) elaborates:

Come and see how great the potential of this person is, that he could open words [of Torah] and expound upon them!

The Yerushalmi continues by discussing the mishnah’s praise that he spoke 70 languages, which, while remarkable, was far from unique – every Sanhedrin had to have such people. (And all members had to be able to understand, if not speak them.)

The gemara gives three examples of women who came to procure birds, explained why they were bringing sacrifices, and were misunderstood by all but Mordechai / Pesachiah. One said they were for “עינתי”, which they thought meant “my wellspring”, a reference to zivah bleeding (zivah, unlike regular niddah, requires a bird-offering afterward), and Mordechai realized she meant “my eye” — she wanted to thank G-d after being healed from an eye condition. Another said “ימתי”, which they similarly understood as “my sea”, and Mordechai explained she too was thankful, that she was saved from the sea. The third said “זיבתי”, which certainly sounds like “my zivah”, and Mordechai again realized she was actually saying “ze’evasi” — that she was saved from a wolf.

What was unique about Mordechai was not just the technical ability to speak many languages. It was the human ability to understand others. Mordechai realized that women would not go to the Beis haMiqdash and speak so crassly as it seemed, in public no less. He understood his listener.

Perhaps this skill of Mordechai’s is also an instance of modesty leading to redemption. There linguistic similarity between anavah (modesty) and la’anos (to answer). It is all too easy to spend the time someone is speaking to me planning my “brilliant” reply. An anav listens, and truly answers. Mordechai heard the person, not just their words.

*The Chida (Mar′is ha′Ayin Sheqalim ch. 41) provides an interesting gematria to buttress this idea. Each letter in the name Pesachyah (פתחיה), relates to the corresponding letter in the name Mordechai (מרדכי). Each of the first three letters is double in value to that in Mordechai:

פ 80 = 2 x   40מ
ת400 = 2 x 200ר
ח   8 = 2 x    4ד

(Each of the last two is half the value:

י10 x 2 = 20כ
ה 5 x 2 = 10י

(The root verb of the name is doubled (פתח to מרד) because Mordechai expanded himself by opening the words of Torah in a way the people were ready to receive. This required the humility and readiness to really listen implied in the last two letters – the humility that took the “כי”, the “because” behind life’s events, and revealed a name of G-d – “י־ה”.)

Defense Mechanisms

This lack of self-esteem is actually very related to ga’avah (egotism). Ga’avah is a defense mechanism for someone who feels a constant need to prove to himself and the world that he really does have value. It’s the insecure who have a need lie to themselves, magnifying their accomplishments, minimizing their imperfections. The need to constantly prove one’s importance would also explain the divisiveness and lack of tolerance of the flaws and errors of others by the masses of his generation.

Perhaps, therefore, one can suggest a common cause for the pathologies given in the elegy for Yoshiahu. Yoshiahu was one of a generation that was digging itself out of the depths. If they never shook off that self-image, then perhaps they too shared the “modesty of Rav Zecharia ben Avqulus”. This in turn led to ga’avah which fueled an inability to change on the part of those who hid their icons by ridiculing the efforts to spread change, as well as the inability of Yoshiahu to admit he might not have been successful. Leitzanus and ga’avah are both mechanisms for dealing with unhealthy anvanus.

Sha’ul also falls to ga’avah. Like many anvanim sought his validation from others, and so Sha’ul bowed to the will of the people, to prove to them he is worthy. Anvanus does not lead to anavah, in fact, his quest for approval he is lead to ga’avah, bragging.

Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos tried to escape his anvanah through yet another tactic, the game of “Yes, But”. If the situation is unsolvable, then one can’t be blamed for failing. In this “game”, one person proposes solutions “Why don’t we…”, to which the anvan responds, “Yes, but…” “Why don’t we offer the sacrifice even though it’s blemished, since risk to life overrides the prohibition?” “Yes, but then people will think it’s permissible in all circumstances.” “Why don’t we kill Bar Qamtza, and save the Jewish People?” “Yes, but then people would think it is permissible in all circumstances.” Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulus is so sure he is incapable of solving the problem, the problem grows to insolvable size.

Rav Zechariah ben Avqulus’s actions lead to Tish’ah be’Av. “Mishenichnas Av mema’atim besimchah — when the month of Av enters, we reduce in joy.” Anvanus leads to a diminution of joy.

Healthy Anvanus

We can also find positive examples of human anvanus. “And so, when Hashem’s aron was brought to the city of David, Michal bas Sha’ul looked out the window and saw king David leaping and dancing before Hashem; and she was ashamed of him in her heart.”

To Michal’s eye, it was not fitting for the king to leap and dance in public. David, on the other hand, didn’t overestimate his worth. Rather than “Who am I to do…?” he said “Who am I that I should not?”!

It is noteworthy that Michal is described as “Sha’ul’s daughter” when she mis-assesses the value of his actions. She thought she learned from her father’s error that anvanus is a mistake. But it isn’t always.

Yehoshua’ distinguished himself from among Moshe’s students by being the one to arrange the seating for the classes. (Bamidbar Rabba 21:14) He did not decide that since he was the next to lead, and the leader of our army, that such things were beneath him.

Rabbi Yochanan said: Everywhere that you find Hashem’s Gevurah [Might], you find His Anvanus. This is written in the Torah, repeated in the Navi, and a third time in Kesuvim.

It is written in the Torah, “For Hashem your G-d is G-d over all forces [E-lokei haElokim]” and it says right after it, “… Who executes the justice of orphans and widows.” (Devarim 10:17-18)

It is repeated in the Navi: “So says the High and Uplifted, Dwelling Eternally and Holy One” and it says right after it “…Who dwells with the afflicted and those of depressed spirit.” (Yeshaiah 57:15)

It is a third time in Kesuvim, as it says “Praise the One who rides on the heavens, Whose name is ‘Kah’” and it says right after it “… the Father of orphans and the Judge for widows”. (Tehillim 68:5)

I defined anavah as awareness of everyone one could be but aren’t. That is a “good thing”, in that it motivates person to constantly strive to improve. In contrast to the anvan, who thinks they are incapable and therefore refuse to act. A person can be an anav or an anvan. But neither make sense when speaking of Hashem. He is neither less than His Potential nor does Hashem underestimate His Worth. We are not speaking of a literal self-image, nor a motivator.

When we speak of Hashem’s Anvanus as opposed to His Gevurah, we can only be describing how His actions appear to us. Anvanus therefore means His willingness to do things even when it may not befit appearances of Honor, to perform acts of kindness even when the kindness does not fit our mental image of honor and authority. Gevurah is that authority, when power leads to away from activities of narrower scope.

When a person thinks of Might, he thinks of someone who moves amongst kings, not someone who helps the downtrodden, the orphan, the widow, the depressed. This kind of anvanus, being willing to help rather than think it beneath our station, is a Divine example we are to emulate. As a necessary prerequisite for chessed (lovingkindness) to those needier than us, it is presented in the gemara a balance to the strict towing-the-line of gevurah.

Anavah, the Path to Happiness

Anvanus therefore requires a fine line. Too much, and one believes every worthy act is above their abilities, too little, and they are all beneath his station. Anavah, an awareness of both one’s abilities and of how much more one can tap them, gives us a means to find that balance.

Purim, on the other hand, arose from Esther’s true, healthy, anavah. Esther started down the road of “Yes But”, but Mordechai’s words shocked her into the realization that “le’eis hazos higa’at lamalkhus”, that her royal station demanded action from her at this time. She did not rest on her laurels, but was motivated by knowing how much more she was capable of accomplishing. Anavah culminates in the victory of Purim. “Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimchah — when the month of Adar enters, we increase in joy.”