For the twenty-nine days of Elul, from August 23 to September 20, we will post a middah — a character trait — here with a brief reflection for you to contemplate. We encourage you to dive into this study. It is a powerful and uplifting practice.
As we enter the month of Elul — the Hebrew month that precedes the High Holy Days — we begin a period of introspection. The study of mussar — a traditional Jewish practice of mindfulness and self-improvement — serves as an excellent way to prepare for the High Holy Days. We study mussar to focus our attention inward and to begin to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls.
We ask ourselves: Have we behaved in ways that are in alignment with our deepest values? Mussar provides a deep way into answering this question by providing criteria by which we can judge our actions and set our intentions.
The practice of mussar is based on considering one’s character traits, or middot. The rabbis who heralded this tradition focused on specific middot as a way of improving the self, with the goal of becoming a more loving and gracious person in community with others.
The study of mussar is most effective when we take it on as an introspective daily practice. It could be as simple as contemplating a specific middah — a character trait — and answering some guiding questions to generate reflection. In this way, we don’t only consider where we are in our lives, we give specific thought to individual components of our character. This is a tool for self-improvement and spiritual uplift. Studying mussar is largely an individualized curriculum that brings to light our different strengths and weaknesses; while it might be natural for some of us to feel profoundly grateful with our lot, others might struggle with a nagging dissatisfaction.
We have chosen twenty-nine middot that are particularly relevant as we begin to prepare ourselves for the High Holy Days. For the twenty-nine days of Elul, from August 23 to September 20, we will post a middah here with a brief reflection for you to contemplate.
Wednesday, August 23: Humility
Humility is not self-depreciation. Nor is humility about putting others above us and diminishing ourselves. Rather, humility takes confidence, strength, and a sense of security to make room for the experience of others.
The Kabbalists taught that before the creation of the universe, Ayn Sof (Infinite God) withdrew Itself into Its essence. It contracted into Itself to leave an empty space, in which it could emanate and lead to creation. We, too, need to be able to pull back ourselves (our perspectives and desires) to make room for others, and yet, this does not diminish the fullness of ourselves.
Jewish tradition values humility as a central tenet of Torah itself.
Rabbi Hanina ben Idi said: “Why are the words of Torah likened to water? In order to indicate that just as water leaves high places and goes to low places, so the words of the Torah leave the one who is haughty and stay with the one who is humble.” (Ta’anit 7a)
How can we balance our power and privilege with humility?
In times when we have abundance in our lives are we able to remain humble?
How do we make room for others?
How do we pull back to shine light on those we love?