The Call of Anavah at Purim, By Rabbi Joshua Boettiger
The middah of humility, or anavah, challenges us to treat every person as a potential teacher.
Initially, we might understand this as simply being open to the possibility of learning something from each encounter – and this is no small thing. However, as is the case with many of the middot, we come to see that anavah asks more of us than just being open to such a possibility – it asks us to alter our default stance in the world. Often, this default stance is a posture of defendedness, a posture of surety. Even if we purport to believe otherwise, we act as if the knowables are fixed. And there is no room for the other amidst all of what we are convinced of. We can perform a curiosity, a listening, a politeness. But to allow the other to really be our teacher requires an initial emptying. Sometimes we treat spiritual practice like we do most other things – we accumulate. But what if it is more of a hollowing out?
Rabbi Alan Lew, z”l, believed that one had to actively work at this stance of not-knowing. He used to train himself to first respond to every question he was asked by responding, I don’t know. And then he would repeat the question to himself, as if trying to hear it freshly and undercut any pat response he might be tempted to reply with.
We have to train ourselves to come into this stance of not-knowing. To what end? The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s, there are few.” And there’s an ethical component as well. If we are committed to a practice of making room for the other, of cultivating authentic curiosity, we have to risk our own litany of assumptions.
And luckily Purim – a holiday we don’t usually think of as being mussardik – comes along once a year to help us with this.
Many of us may be familiar with the injunction on Purim to reach the place of Ad d’Lo Yada (literally, “until one does not know”). While this is commonly spoken about in terms of drinking until one no longer knows the difference between blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman, the kabbalistic tradition holds that Ad d’Lo Yada is more about transcending a particular kind of dualistic thinking. It comes along to undercut our assumptions about what we think we know – and this can be threatening and scary. The Yetzer haRa makes us feel that if we do not come fortified with what we are sure of, that we will not be safe.
But what if this custom on Purim was in support of our lifelong training to re-learn how to say, I don’t know; to loosen our fundamentalism and enable us to listen to and learn from the other in a way that elevates them to the status of teacher.
Marc-Alain Ouaknin said, “There’s no shortage of teachers. What is needed is a learner.”
If we want to make the other our teacher, the onus is on us to make ourselves into a learner. In Mussar language, Ad d’Lo Yada is asking us to not meet the other from what Yehuda Amichai calls, “the place where we are right.”
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger is the spiritual leader of Temple Emek Shalom in Ashland, OR, and a Member of the CCM Rabbinic Advisory Council. He is a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, and is a Rabbis Without Borders Fellow. Rabbi Boettiger directs the Mussar program in Ashland, and also teaches Jewish meditation on a weekly basis and leads silent retreats.