My recent meditations on gratitude/hakarat hatov reminded me of a truism my favorite Latin professor was especially fond of intoning: translation is a journey, and if you aren’t careful, meaning can get lost along the way. This is especially true when the path from origin to destination is as long and winding as that from Biblical Hebrew to Modern English. So when Rabbi Craig mentioned the virtue, or middah, of anavah in one of his sermons recently, I wondered if there was any meaning to be recovered by retracing the steps he took to get arrive at the English words “humbleness” and “humility”. Sure enough, I was not disappointed. The root of anavah, ayin-nun-hay has multiple meanings. One frequently invoked meaning is “to answer a call” or “to testify” as during court proceedings. Another, less common is “to agree to perform a task or labor.” A third translation, “to be afflicted,” suggests that the task or labor at hand is probably not an enjoyable one. Humbleness and humility, on the other hand, share the Latin root humus meaning “dirt” or “earth”, probably in a nod to the second telling of the creation of Adam, made from red clay. In the most literal of senses, there is nothing incorrect in equating anavah with humility. Both denote a sense of groundedness, an awareness with reality. But just like relying on our sense of hearing at the expense of our sense of sight, if we stop at the literal translation then we deprive ourselves of additional layers of meaning, additional ways of understanding ourselves and the world around us. Spiritually, the two concepts could not be more different. The Latin root of humble brings with it a residue of inferiority. It’s no accident that humility and humiliate are intimately related; Roget’s Thesaurus lists “lowly”, “contrite”, “poor”, “mean”, and “undistinguished” as its synonyms. And practically speaking, there is often a fine line between humility, false modesty, and low self-esteem. It is perhaps fitting then that both of these character deficits are often found in the company of arrogance and pride.
When we recognize a shortcoming, we often feel a very human urge overcorrect. But an excess of anavah can also manifest as a sort of arrogance. When we refuse to recognize our individual potential, or to act on it appropriately, we assume several things that may or may not be accurate. First, we assume that we have a clear sense of our strengths and weaknesses. Second, assuming we do have an accurate picture of our talents, we further assume that we know best how to deploy them in every circumstance. Third, we assume that our desired outcome is objectively the best one for ourselves and for others. Because any (or all) of these assumptions may be incorrect at any given time, true anavah requires not that we undervalue ourselves or our potential, but rather that we do not fall into the trap of valuing our own perceptions and preconceived notions at the expense of others’. True anavah, like so many other virtues, manifests as a middle ground between cockiness and timidity. Anavah can best be understood as recognizing one’s rightful place and then occupying it with serious dedication and a glad heart. The sages often hold Moses up as an exemplar of anavah, whom Torah describes as being an ish anav, a humble man. We never see Moses putting himself down or debasing himself, though. Rather, he embodies anavah because while he does not seek out special status, when he is called he accepts the role and then devotes himself to performing it to the best of his abilities.
This expanded understanding of anavah brings me to this week’s parshah, Mikeitz. We begin with Pharaoh’s infamous, undecipherable dreams: seven fat cows graze next to seven skinny cows on the bank of the Nile, when all of the sudden the skinny cows devour the fat ones.
Next, seven plump ears of grain sprout on a single stalk, followed by seven stunted ones. And again, the stunted ears gobble up the plump ones. Joseph is sent for, and while he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as commanded, he is careful to give credit for his insights to God, rather than court fame as a soothsayer. Once Joseph presents his interpretation, Pharaoh asks for advice on how best to proceed. An arrogant man might use this as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement, but years of slavery have transformed Joseph from a boastful boy into an unpretentious man. He advises Pharaoh to seek out a wise man to manage Egypt’s agricultural output and to systematically store grain during the seven years of plenty in preparation for the subsequent seven years of famine. And yet, while he does not court the limelight, neither does he shrink from Pharaoh’s appointment.
This Joseph looks very different from the proud and arguably spoiled child who alienated his brothers by reveling in his status as his father’s favorite. He also displays anavah in his treatment of and reconciliation with his brothers. And just as Esau serves as a model for reconciliation through gratitude, Joseph serves as a model for reconciliation through humility. When he encounters his brothers in Egypt, he has the opportunity to perpetuate their estrangement and send them home empty handed. Instead he chooses to give them enough rope to build a ladder or hang themselves, so to speak. Implicit in his trust-but-verify stance is a recognition and ownership of his portion of the responsibility for their estrangement, no more, no less. In so doing, he demonstrates not just wisdom, but also trust that his brothers will rise to the challenge and do the same.
Arrogance within a relationship often looks like refusing to own our part in a rift or argument. Sometimes we do this because we feel justified in our actions, as when we push back too forcefully against a request we perceive to be unreasonable. Other times it’s hard to see our responsibility because we haven’t wronged the other person directly. Rather you have wronged yourself, and the other party or the relationship suffers as a consequence. This cycle is most often seen in abusive or toxic relationships, where both parties pile resentments and hurts one upon the other until they’ve erected a wall between them. But it’s not unique to unhealthy dynamics. Who hasn’t agreed to a plan we were less than enthusiastic about only to sulk the whole time, or brought up some past slight during an argument? Until we are able to stop focusing on what is beyond our control and humbly take ownership of our responsibilities, we will remain stuck.
It can be hard to follow Joseph’s example when we have been hurt or wronged, but it is important to remember that, as social beings, it’s not good to allow resentments to fester. It is equally important that reconciliation comes from a healthy place, at the pace that feels right for us rather than dictated by someone else. In order to heal, we must feel safe enough to admit we’ve been wounded and are therefore vulnerable. In order to display our vulnerability, we must not only be sure that the other feels remorse for harming us; we must also be sure that they will not harm us again in similar fashion.
When our relationship repair is guided by anavah, we let go of the things that are not ours to carry and give the other person the opportunity to do the same. By stepping back, we trust them to grow into the space we leave behind, turning a vulnerability into a strength. Only then can we expose the chink, the weakness, the vulnerability, for the other to strengthen with their tshuvah. Easier said than done, and yet, with time and patience and diligence, totally achievable.