The Torah portion for this Shabbat is called Nitzavim from the book of Deuteronomy. We will read part of this portion again on Yom Kippur morning. Among many other lessons, we learn about the Mussar middah of Anavah, the character trait of humility. I was honored to contribute a chapter to The Mussar Torah Commentary that I will present at our Selichot observance Saturday night.
In the Jewish Mussar tradition, humility is not about making oneself small, it is about balancing between arrogance and self-negation. The sweet spot is the point that lets us maintain appropriate ego health. God tells the Children of Israel that the covenant, which they are about to enter into, is an inclusive one. All are brought together in that moment and given the opportunity to say yes to God, yes to Torah, and yes to community. And, it is not just those present in that moment who are given the opportunity to enter into the covenant. The inclusive nature of the covenant transcends time and space to include each and every one of us, too. Wherever we are and whoever we are you and I can be a part of this experience.
This is the greatness of our humanity. We are created in the image of God and given the gift of the Torah. In true Mussar fashion to balance this out, we must also look at the description of the Sinai experience in Exodus. The children of Israel are standing there but the exact location is “under” the mountain. The Midrash picks up on this and imagines at that moment God suspending Sinai over the gathered masses, saying, “If you accept the Torah and enter the covenant, all will be well. But, if you do not, this shall be your burial plot.” We are created in the divine image, yes. But we are also merely insects that can be crushed in an instant. Balance…Anavah…humility. We are great and we are nothing. The sweet spot and the path upon which we strive to walk is somewhere in between that embraces both of these realities.
Nineteen years ago, on September 11th it felt as if the mountain had been dropped upon our heads as terrorists attacked from above leveling the World Trade Center Towers, hitting the Pentagon and crashing into the fields of Pennsylvania. We mourn the thousands of lives lost and we send strength to those injured in body and spirit. That moment dramatically altered our equilibrium and threw us all off balance. Today, we observe this horrific tragedy in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic. So many lives have been lost and so many lives have been dramatically affected and changed by what we are experiencing today. We are, each of us teetering, struggling to maintain balance to recover our equilibrium.
Though the mountain may feel as if it is pressing down upon us, crushing us, we also know that we are capable of greatness, too. We are stronger than we think in this moment and more capable than we can even imagine in this moment. May we use our strength to help lift the burden of this moment from the shoulders of others. May we accept the help others offer to us to share this load. May we all recognize that we are more than we imagine, and may we see this same value in the people all around us.