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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

Humility: the Middah of Anavah

In preparing to apply for rabbinical school, I was meeting regularly with my rabbi. In one of our meetings he prepped me through a mock interview. Afterwards he said to me, “Ariel, most rabbis struggle with humility in that they don’t have enough of it. We’re a profession that attracts confident, prideful people. I’m going to give you the opposite advice I give most people in our position: you have too much humility. You’re too modest. You need a little more pride and confidence in yourself.”

His words plagued me. I considered them from many angles. Was I really too modest, or was I just more modest than most in my field?

I became committed to learning about the middah of anavah, the character trait of humility. I started my study of Mussar, Jewish ethical practice, and explored a variety of middot, character traits. But the middah I kept returning to was anavah, humility or modesty. Throughout my now several years of study, there were times when I was accused of being too modest, of not taking up enough space. Additionally, there were also times when I was accused of not being modest enough, of taking up too much space. I have struggled to determine where exactly I fit in the middah of modesty, and whether my personal trait of modesty is a benefit or detriment.


In his influential Mussar text Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explores different middot and how to acquire them. One middah he explores is anavah, this trait of humility or modesty.

In explaining what anavah is, Luzzatto emphasizes the importance of understanding natural gifts as beyond one’s control, and thus not something to be prideful of:

One who possesses a straight intellect, even if they have merited to become a great sage and truly distinguished, when they look and contemplate, will see that there is no room for haughtiness and pride. For behold, one who possesses high intelligence, who knows more than others, merely does what it is their nature to do. They are like a bird which flies upwards because of its nature, or an ox which pulls with its might because of its nature. So too for one who is wise. This is because their nature brings them to this. But for another person who is currently not as wise as them, if they had possessed natural intelligence like them, they would also have become just as wise. Hence, there is no room to elevate and pride oneself in this.[1]


Luzzatto addresses how each of us have distinct natural talents and abilities which are not necessarily the result of hard work or dedication. Pride in our natural talents and abilities is unhelpful, since they are not due to our own efforts or accomplishments. We must recognize that the naturally intelligent, talented, or skilled person often does not need to work as hard or diligently as those born without the same abilities, and therefore does not deserve extra praise due to what God has blessed them with.

However, just because someone with natural ability should not feel pride in what they were born with, it also does not mean they should hide or downplay their talents: “One who denies one’s strengths is not humble, but a fool. Rather, a humble person is one who understands that all their strengths and accomplishments are a gift from heaven. The more a person recognizes this, the more humble they are” (Rabbi Leib Chasman).[2]

From the juxtaposition of these two understandings of humility, we can glean that anavah is heavily dependent on circumstance, and may change from situation to situation. What may be modest in one situation could be considered meek in another. What may be modest in one situation may be arrogant in another. There is no one way to act to be modest, not only because each of us are so different from each other, but also because each situation we’re in is unique and distinct. In Luzzatto’s exploration of anavah, he concludes with a quote from Proverbs: "let the wise man hear and increase understanding" (Mishlei 1:5).[3]


I learned humility from my father. He is the smartest person I know. Coming from a family of lawyers, he put himself through law school, passed the bar, and started practicing law, but quickly realized his heart wasn’t in it. He went back to school and became a teacher. He taught all levels of math in public high school. He loves math, and he loves teaching.

Growing up, I had a natural gift for math. I didn’t struggle until freshman year geometry class, at which point I sat down with my dad for my first-ever tutoring session. We had my homework in front of me, and he asked me to begin to solve the problem.

“I don’t know how to solve the problem,” I shot back. “That’s why I’m here asking for your help.”

 “I understand,” he responded patiently, “but I need to see how you would naturally approach the problem before offering a solution. There are several possible ways to solve this problem. Different people have different ways of thinking about things. One way will make sense to one person, but not to another. I could show you any of the possible ways, but I don’t know which one will work for you and the way you think. So first I need to see how your brain works, so I can show you the best solution for the way you think.”

As an adult, I look back at this interaction between my father and me, and I think about what an amazing lesson it was in modesty. He could have shown all the possibilities, as he knew them all. He could have started with the one he preferred, thinking it superior. Instead he took a step back and asked me to begin, to first learn how my brain worked before offering any help. He took no pride in his own knowledge, but also did not deny his strengths or knowledge. He started with listening to increase his understanding. Without knowing Mussar, here my father was displaying all the qualities of anavah that I have discovered on my learning quest.

At the time, however, I was fourteen years old and full of angst. I could not appreciate this lesson in modesty. I was frustrated that something I had always excelled in was no longer easy for me. This was possibly the first time I had been encountered with a problem that I had no idea how to solve, and the uncertainty scared me.

I said something like, “Well if you’re not going to help me, what’s the point?” and I took my textbook and left.

More than the discomfort of not knowing was the discomfort of bruised pride. I could not face the possibility of doing something incorrectly in front of my father, the smartest person I knew. What if I embarrassed myself? What if he no longer thought I was smart? I just wanted him to show me how to solve the problem, so I could memorize the steps and duplicate it myself.

That experience not only represented a time when my father modeled healthy modesty, but also a time when I had unhealthy modesty. I had both an excess and a deficit of modesty. I was not modest enough to be willing to potentially embarrass myself (pride). I was too modest to think I deserved the patience and compassion of receiving help even if I was wrong (insecurity).

I felt undeserving – undeserving of shame, and undeserving of care. In fact, I don’t think there are many situations where someone is purely in excess of modesty or deficit of modesty. I believe more often than not, unhealthy modesty has excesses and deficits simultaneously.

I did, eventually, sit down with my dad again. We learned that I do not have a spatial brain, which was why geometry was so hard for me. We used a different approach that made more sense to me. On top of geometry, the lesson I learned was that everyone’s brains work in different ways. No way is better or worse than another, they’re just different. It is important to acknowledge and recognize those differences if we are to understand each other and adequately help one another. It isn’t about showing someone how you would solve the problem, but figuring out the best path for them. There isn’t just one path to duplicate, but many different paths each suitable to many different people. Listen first, and increase in understanding. I did not learn the first time, but I had a great and patient teacher.


The middah of modesty came up again when I did CPE – pastoral care education and work as a chaplain in a hospital. My CPE supervisor said the same thing my rabbi said years earlier, that I was in excess of modesty.

“Your colleagues want to hear you speak more in class,” he told me one day. “I have a feeling that you have more to share, and you’re holding back. You’re often the last to speak. I think everyone appreciates what you have to say, and our conversations may go in a different direction if you were the first to speak.”

I didn’t know how to respond, so I told my supervisor that I would think about his words.

 It is still something I am working on and wondering, this question of where exactly I fall on the scale of modesty. On the one hand, I do tend to be a more quiet person, often letting others speak first and not feeling the need to respond to every statement. On the other hand, I am confident enough to be a teacher, a preacher, and a community leader; confident enough to call out injustice, speak truth to power; confident enough to be talking about myself today.

After thinking about my supervisor’s words, I challenged him in our next meeting.

“What is modesty?” I asked him. “I share when I feel like I have something to add. In order to add something, I must listen first, and then evaluate the value of my own thoughts. If I have something to add I will; if I don’t, I won’t.”

And then came my challenge of him: “Could it be that my classmates value what I have to say precisely because I don’t always share what I’m thinking? I try to only share my best. An excess in modesty would be not sharing at all, and a deficit would be sharing everything.”


I do think even healthy modesty can sometimes look like self-deprecation or insecurity. In contrast, some insecurities disguise themselves as healthy modesty. I think the difference comes back to confidence. I remember my experience with my dad when I stormed off. In that case, I felt fearful, ashamed, and undeserving. Those are clear indicators of unhealthy modesty.

But with an absence of fear and shame, when recognizing that we do not have anything new to add, we create space for others to share their perspective. Not only that, we create an opportunity for ourselves to learn from others. And this is the biggest reason why I believe healthy modesty can be an asset: the opportunity it gives us to grow. By listening, I have learned so much from others, from all kinds of people. From people who maybe aren’t book smart, or super articulate, or great at memorizing and repeating information. From people who are artists, creatives, or emotional thinkers. From people who process information through their bodies instead of just their minds. From people who think in ways I could never imagine.

Through my own exploration of the middah of anavah, I have come to believe that healthy modesty isn’t about restricting yourself due to self-doubt, shame, or fear. Healthy modesty is creating space for others out of the desire to hear them. As Proverbs says, in hearing others, we can increase our own understanding. It may appear to be a benefit to others, and it is; but we cannot discount the immense benefit it is to us as the ones who hear and learn.

This is not to say I have figured it all out. I do not always excel in this balance of healthy modesty. Sometimes I think my thoughts are novel when they aren’t. Sometimes I feel anxious about silence and I break it too soon. Sometimes I respond to questions with answers when I could respond with more questions. Even talking about modesty in relation to myself feels immensely immodest. Modesty feels like this incredibly fragile thing, this impossible balancing act, amorphous and nebulous like a plume of smoke. Modesty is not something I have mastered, or something that is even possible to master.

Rather, this is to say that through my struggle with the middah of anavah I have learned something I think is worth sharing. Healthy modesty is not restrictive. Even if I take up less space, it is not because I see myself as small. When I step back to listen, I am pausing my own activity in order to grow. Like a plant bathing in sun and soaking up rain, listening and absorbing the wisdom of others is what I need to grow. While this pause undoubtedly helps others, ultimately it is an act of self-love.

Luzzatto says modesty is not just about action and behavior, but about thought and intention. In my practice of anavah, I remind myself that creating space for others is an opportunity for my own benefit. An opportunity to listen, to learn, to grow, to increase understanding. On the other hand, speaking up and sharing my own insights is a way to give back and engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world. In short, I believe the middah of anavah is about acknowledging that we all have talents and intelligences to share with the world, and we all gain wisdom through listening. We do not need to bring ourselves down in order to lift each other up. Each one of us has so much to teach, and we all have so much to learn.




[1] Mesilat Yesharim 22:9

[2] From Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis; pg. 245

[3] Mesilat Yesharim 22:54

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ahhh, the balance, the balance... Boggles my mind as well.

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