(Avot 6:6) There are 48 ways to acquire Torah, including...anavah, humility...
(Genesis 26:24) ...vayi'h'yu b'einav k'yamim achadim... (The seven years Jacob worked for Laban in order to marry Rachel) ...seemed to him as but a few days...
We all look at the world through a filter of some kind or another. In Christian Scripture, the apostle Paul suggests that even spiritually astute people view this world "through a glass, darkly." A common cliché patronizes the eternal optimist, suggesting that he or she looks at the world through rose-colored glasses. I sometimes explain the process of conversion to prospective students as learning to see the world through "Jew-colored glasses."
Reading through this Torah portion, I looked for some reference to anavah (humility) and initially found none. Jacob's extraordinary dream prompts him to strike a bargain with God before a sense of humility can settle in his soul. And the duplicity between Laban and Jacob prompts each of them to manipulate words and promises, each to his own aggrandizement and the other's diminution. Only by deliberately misreading a word in Hebrew could I find a reference to anavah
The root of anavah is alef-nun-vav. Those three letters appear in Chapter 26, verse 24 in the description of Jacob's servitude to Laban to earn the privilege of marrying Rachel. The seven years of labor were, in his eyes, as but a few days. The word for "in his eyes" is b'einav, spelled bet-ayin-yod-nun-ayin-vav. The root letters of anavah appear only because of the possessive suffix that modifies the root letters of "eye," ayin-yod-nun. Yet in that verse is an important clue about how to acquire Torah through the practice of humility, which is merely a way of filtering the way we look at the world.
To be humble is to minimize one's importance in the scheme of things. Humble folks are generally modest, but not all modest folks are humble. One can be unwilling to brag about his or her talents and thus be modest, but only the truly humble would not take private satisfaction in those talents. Humility is the genuine belief that I am nothing special.
People tend to encourage humility in themselves or others, but sometimes such self-effacing behavior is not such a good thing. We all know people whose egos have been pummeled into the ground. They believe themselves to be worthless and insignificant, and their behavior reflects what they consider to be the disposable nature of their lives. Some of them become human doormats, exploited by abusive people around them. Others take risks that are dangerous to themselves or other people, masking their self-denigration with acts of foolhardiness or false bravado.
Humility only has value when it is coupled with a sense of inherent dignity. That is to say, humility only has value when it is God-centered. Only when a person sees himself or herself standing in the presence of the Creator and all of creation can humility prompt an appropriate response: service. The person with a healthy humility will seek to offer acts of gratitude to the One who gave the privilege of life to such an unexceptional collection of flesh and bone.
My creative misreading of the word b'einav as connected to anavah illustrates what I mean. Separating each of the three root letters, alef-nun-vet, is a yod. Two letters yod represent the name of God, what we pronounce as Adonai. When God is present in humility – when the humble person sees the world through God-colored glasses – the result is service with full heart and devotion.
Those days of servitude were, to Jacob, k'yamim achadim, as but a few days. The adjective achadim comes from the same word as echad, and the best-known usage of that word in Torah is at the end of the Sh'ma – Adonai Echad. The same notion shows up in the Passover song, Echad Mi Yodei'a, "Who Knows One?" One, of course, is God. The days of devotion seemed to Jacob as but a few days – certainly that is the plan meaning of the verse. But hidden within the meaning of those words is another truth – Jacob's devotion, performed with Godly humility, were Godly days.
Jacob was less impressed with the lesson of God's presence on the lonely mountain than he was with the lesson of God working through his everyday life among people. His experience dreaming of angels convinced him only of a personal opportunity; he was humbled to be in God's presence, but seemed quietly smug about his ability to make use of his chosenness. Only when he became a simple worker serving a greater cause – the cause of his future and the future of the Jewish people – did he see God working in his life and his life working in God.
The goal of the religious life is to promote this kind of humility. People who take a smug satisfaction in their personal rectitude seem to stand out and define our image of the self-righteous religious extremist. The stereotype overwhelms the reality. Here's a wonderful story of a lesson in genuine humility from Rabbi Matthew Futterman:
"One Chanukkah my daughter suffered a terrible blow to the head while we were visiting family in Tel Aviv. In order to make sure that she had not suffered a concussion we took her to the emergency room at Ichilov Hospital. We were there quite some time waiting for her to be x-rayed, and then afterwards we waited for the doctors' report.
"After at least an hour and a half I noticed several Haredi (ultra-Orthodox, bearded, black-hatted) men enter the room. They began approaching other distraught families in the emergency room and waiting area. I could feel my blood pressure increase.
"Here they were again, asking for money, preying on the vulnerable while they were in distress and their defenses were down. "Just wait till they come to me," I thought to myself. "I will take them to task for insensitivity."
"As I was standing by the nurse's desk at the end of the room furthest from the entrance, it took a while before they would get to me. This allowed my indignation to increase to the point that I was ready to pounce when finally approached.
"I was so ready!
"And I was so mistaken.
"Instead of asking for money, this gentle soul asked if I was hungry and offered me a sandwich from a basketful of sandwiches prepared by him and other members of an obscure Bikkur Holim ("Visiting the Sick") society operating out of Bnei Brak.
"I was so overwhelmed by his selflessness and so overcome by my prejudices that I walked over to the corner and sobbed. I had never felt so ashamed.
"Months later, our daughter had a benign tumor removed from her skull, and while she was hospitalized, we were visited daily by teen aged girls (also from the nearby ultra-Orthodox Haredi communities) who wheeled cakes and beverages around the hospital at all hours of the day and night.
"These volunteers brought so much comfort to the ailing and their families because they performed the mitzvah of bikkur holim with such love and compassion for other human beings.
"Serving God by serving people in their moment of need was accomplished because of the quiet humility of the otherwise anonymous Jews. Without even advertising their community of origin, they became the lesson in Torah – the mitzvah of visiting the sick and bringing them comfort."
One way to acquire Torah is through such humility, a posture of sincere gratitude that so ordinary a life can be provided the opportunity to see the world through the filter of God's presence, and to repay that privilege in devoted service.
How can a person cultivate humility without also cultivating pride? Perform tasks we often call "menial" for other people. Sweep a street; spend an afternoon as a doorman at a local establishment (get permission first!); fill in bussing dishes in a restaurant. Become one of those invisible people you barely notice when they serve you. Look for the satisfaction in performing your task as best you can, not in the response from the people who benefit.