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Bechukotai – Humility

06/28/2024 02:28:13 PM


Rabbi Nat Ezray

Bechukotai – Humility

Frank Bruni is a well-known writer who also teaches journalism at Duke University.  He wrote a powerful column entitled The Most Important Lessons Aren’t on the Syllabus where he talks about behavior he expects from his students.  These lessons wisely speak to our broader society at this moment in history.

First, he tells them that grammar matters. If their papers have incorrect grammar or spelling, their grade will suffer. Second, he tells them  that every voice matters. He doesn’t want one or two students to dominate the class such that other voices don’t have a chance to participate. Third, he repeats the following phrase: “It’s complicated.” He wants to instill doubt and questions in the students, rather than have them hold the certitude that theirs in the only correct viewpoint.

He writes that as he reflected on those three lessons, he realized that there was one quality that united them.  What do you think it was?  It is humility. Let’s explore that.

How is proper grammar about humility?  It recognizes a common mode of communication.  It respects tradition, which is a force that binds us and folds the self into a greater whole. 

Letting others speak requires humility. Creating space for others and being aware of tendencies to dominate or to fail to listen is humility at its best. It’s not all about me. We share the community, the country and the world with others. 

Embracing complexity is another side of humility. In Bruni’s words: “ ‘It’s complicated’ is a bulwark against arrogance, absolutism, purity and zeal.” 

Judaism embraces humility. The word for humility is anavah.  Humility isn’t self-deprecation or diminishing yourself.  It is truly creating space for others.  Humility is realizing the world is not all about you. Moses is described as ish anav – a humble man. He listened. He taught. He asked God when he was unsure. He did not pursue power.  He stayed connected to others even when they frustrated him. He saw his greatness not as a personal accomplishment, but as a gift from God. His humility was the key to his leadership.  Everything he did was a reflection of God’s will and a commitment to a greater good.  

Frank Bruni wrote something fascinating about humility: “Humility is the antidote to grievance.  We live in an era defined and overwhelmed by grievance – by too many Americans’ obsession with how they’ve been wronged and their insistence on wallowing in ire.”  This anger turns us against one another.

This morning’s portion tells about the power of humility and the danger of arrogance and grievance.  When we have a shared sense of doing what is right and pursuing the greater good, blessings ensue. Listen to the verse: “I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid.”  The respect that comes for our fellow humans through humility connects us and mitigates fear and anger.  The majority of the portion graphically, and uncomfortably, focuses on curses that happen when we are arrogant and reject God’s laws.

Let’s look at these blessings and curses through the lens of Frank Bruni’s lessons:

Rule 1: Follow the rules of grammar.  For Bruni, this is about far more than grammar.  It is about the rules of society.  Bechukotai describes a world where we stopped following God’s rules. We stopped caring for those in need. We became apathetic and averted our gaze from those needing our help. We ignored injustice.  We lost the moral code that is the center of God’s laws and commandments. Rules matter.  Justice matters.  Truth matters. You cannot say that, because you think you are right, the world must revolve around your dictates. The world crumbles; consequence and curse result, when there is no code to guide.

Rule 2: Let others talk.  Yours is not the only voice that matters. A piece of what underlies the curses is arrogance.  When prosperity came, we took all the credit.  We didn’t appreciate the blessings God gave us.  We lost our way because we became self-absorbed. That is what causes society and culture to crumble.

Rule 3: It’s complex. It is complex.  This portion requires us to explore the causes, attitudes and behaviors that underlie the curses. We struggle with and re-interpret how we understand curses and numerous interpretations have emerged over time. It is this complexity that allows us to learn more about who we are and how we should behave.  

It's complex! We are called upon to understand the dynamics of fear and causalities where negative consequences ripple.  Scarcity begets more scarcity; fear begets fear.  Understanding complexities drives us to change and reverse course, to find that blessings can emerge amidst pain and anguish.

Rules, plurality of voices, and complexity are the humility we need at this moment. Frank Bruni  brings us heroes of humility to inspire us to live this value in our own lives.  One is Charlie Baker, who was a Republican governor of of the very Democratic state of Massachusetts from 2015 to 2023.  Baker talks about, and lives, the ethic of truly valuing others. He wrote a book with his chief of staff, Steve Kadish, who is a Democrat.  Listen to this line from the book: “Insight and knowledge come from curiosity and humility.  Snap judgements about people or ideas are fueled by arrogance and conceit.  They create blind spots and missed opportunities.  Good ideas and interesting ways to accomplish goals in public life exist all over the place if you have the will, the curiosity and the humility to find them.”   It begins with us.  It is too easy to hear this sermon and think about all the people who lack humility and how the sermon is about them; it is about us.  Check in with your own behavior around humility.  Is it something you need to work on?  Are there place you might not even realize you need to work on?

It can be especially hard to practice humility in a world where it is so lacking.  Hold onto the science about how people mirror the emotions we display.  When we are angry, people we interact with mirror that behavior.  When we are able to be calm and to listen, people mirror the behavior.  It is the same with humility.  Call-outs, grievance, shaming, screaming at others don’t change things; they only drive the terrible outcomes we see in this week’s portion. 

Humility is the path toward blessing. I conclude with the final sentence of Frank Bruni’s article: “While grievance blows our concerns out of proportion, humility puts them in perspective.  While grievance reduces the people with whom we disagree to caricature, humility acknowledges that they’re every bit as complex as we are – with as much of a stake in creating a more perfect union.”  Inspired and informed by our Jewish tradition, may we live lives of humility and bring blessing. Shabbat Shalom

Sat, July 13 2024 7 Tammuz 5784