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.”