Almost exactly a week ago I was pulled over on Wynnewood Avenue, directly across the street from Whole Foods. I had actually noticed the unmarked police car a few blocks prior driving down Lancaster Avenue in Ardmore. I drove carefully the rest of the way, and so was somewhat surprised to see the officer’s siren lights in my rearview mirror. It turns out that my registration was expired; the officer had run my tag number while sitting at the previous red light. I asked Officer Whitt, the picture of the gentlemanly Lower Merion cop by the way, what had prompted him to check my tag number. It was random, he assured me; just what an officer does when cruising around the neighborhood. After checking out my license and registration, Officer Whitt came back with a very particular kind of ticket. Carefully, he explained that I was receiving a ‘faulty equipment’ summons, a ticket issued to drivers whose vehicle and/or paperwork wasn’t in proper order. And then he shared that I had ten days to get my account in order. Ten days, in other words, to set things right.
My encounter with the law couldn’t have happened at a better time. I immediately understood that this was the Yamim Noraim – the Days of Awe – in miniature. I entered this year, as I enter every year, with faulty equipment. In different years, different pieces are in need of repair, but there’s always something. And every year, I have 10 days, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and concluding with Yom Kippur, to figure it out and to see if I can at least begin to set things right. Without realizing it, Officer Whitt taught me one of the essential lessons of this season. I should probably send him a thank you note! By the way, I stopped into the police station on Monday, presented my refreshed and renewed credentials, and went on my way. Would that it were really that easy!
Our tradition preserves a set of practices designed to help us work on and hopefully repair our personal ‘faulty equipment.’ One version, which comes out of the world of kabbalah, is called Tikkun Midot – literally repair of attributes. Each of us is a collection of midot – character traits and personal attributes – that exist and operate (hopefully) in balance with one another. Sometimes they get mis-aligned, knocked off track; and always they are in need of nurture, attention, and care. In the coming year, we’re hoping to introduce a community wide Tikkun Middot practice to the whole congregation. Today, I’d like for us to have a taste of middah work by focusing on one attribute, the particularly central trait known as ‘anavah or humility.
Sources for Discussion
There are some character traits for which it is forbidden to follow a middle path, but a person should go to the opposite extreme, such as with the quality of haughtiness. It is not a good path simply to be humble; a person should be meek and spirit should be very low. Thus, it is said about Moses our teacher (that he was) “very humble” (Numbers 12:3), not just humble. So our sages commanded: one must be exceedingly meek. [R Moses Maimonides, Laws Relating to Moral and Ethical Character 2:3]
When I had decided to carry out my determination to write this book, I did not seem to myself worthy of undertaking such a work, and I felt that I would not be able to accomplish it as fully as it deserved. For I am full of shortcomings, my knowledge is insufficient, my understanding of the full import of things is inadequate…Fearing the excessive efforts it would involve, fearing the possibility of missing the mark and failing to accomplish my purpose, I was persuaded to give it up and retreat from my enterprise. But when I had made up my mind to throw off this burden and I had reconciled myself to abandoning the work, I was struck with self-reproach for having preferred the peace of mind and tranquility of idleness. I suspected that it was my evil instinct that seduced me into giving up my undertaking and that drove me to seek rest and ease by tempting me to admit my failure and be satisfied with indolence. Knowing that many a disappointment is caused by needless fear and many a privation by over-cautiousness…I said to myself, ‘If everyone who intended to do something good, to demonstrate the right way or to proclaim justice, kept silent until he felt himself perfectly qualified, there would have been no word uttered since the days of the prophets… If every man who desired the perfect attainment of all good qualities and found himself unable to achieve them wholly, thereupon gave up even those which by God’s favor he could reach, all men would have been remiss in doing the good, void of all virtues, wandering in the desert of frustration…’ [Bahya ibn Paquda, Duties of the Heart, Introduction]
Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. God said to him, “Abraham,” and he answered, “Here I am.” (hineni) And God said, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” [Genesis 22:1-2]
Here I am: This is the reply of the pious. It is an expression of humility (l’shon ‘anava) and an expression of readiness. [Rashi on Genesis 22:1]
‘Here I am’ suggests humility and zeal.
Humility perfects the will, and it thus serves as the best vessel for the reception of every blessing.
Humility strengthens the memory.
5. It is impossible to achieve any clear perception except through humility.
7. When humility effects depression it is defective; when it is genuine it inspires joy, courage and inner dignity.
8. At times it is not necessary to be afraid of greatness, which inspires a person to do great things. All humility is based on such holy greatness. [R Abraham Isaac Kook, The Moral Principles]
Humility = ‘limiting oneself to an appropriate space while leaving room for others.’ [Alan Morinis, Everyday Holiness]
Forseeing by Sharon Bryan
Middle age refers more to landscape than to time: it’s as if you’d reached
the top of a hill and could see all the way to the end of your life,
so you know without a doubt that it has an end— not that it will have,
but that it does have, if only in outline— so for the first time
you can see your life whole, beginning and end not far from where you stand,
the horizon in the distance— the view makes you weep, but it also has the beauty
of symmetry, like the earth seen from space: you can’t help but admire it from afar,
especially now, while it’s simple to re-enter whenever you choose, lying down in your life,
waking up to it just as you always have— except that the details resonate
by virtue of being contained, as your own words coming back to you
define the landscape, remind you that it won’t go on like this forever.
from Flying Blind. © Sarabande Books, 1996
Plea by Hava Pinhas-Cohen
With a baby in my hand,
human milk weaving his life,
at night come rhythmic beats and sounds
At a certain station on this earth,
barefoot and with limited strength,
I stretched forth my arms
like the horns of a ram from a thicket
a whisper of earth to heaven
listen, and make the tabernacle of Your mercy
like the shade of a vine and a fig tree
don’t test me, please.
There is wood and a thicket and the smell of fire
and the sight of smoke. With mothers one doesn’t play hide and seek –
With my limited strength I cover my eyes
my voice is lost in a cry
Where are You?
from Creator, Are You Listening? Indiana University Press, 2007