Holy days and humility

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

For thus says the Lord to the house of Israel: “Seek me and live . . .” (Amos 5:4).

The connection between humility and the High Holy Days might seem pretty obvious. For the whole month leading up to Rosh Hashanah, and especially through the ten Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we’re supposed to devote ourselves to self-examination, to making amends for wrongdoing, and to confessing our sins before God. The lengthy confession of sin on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is followed by Avinu Malkenu, when we all stand before the open ark and recite, “Our Father, our King!  Be gracious to us, and answer us, for we have no good works of our own; deal with us in charity and kindness, and save us.”

What could be more humble than this statement of our utter unworthiness? Humility by definition requires a sober, unflinching assessment of self, and an awareness of who we really are in the sight of a holy God.

But the practice of humility is meant to take us beyond this self-assessment, which shows us how unworthy we are to stand in God’s presence. That’s a stage in humility, but the goal is to get beyond self-focus altogether. We’re not to remain in the confession-of-sin stage, but to move on through it to the presence of God. Humility admits that sin is the barrier between us and God, but it doesn’t quit at the barrier.

Rabbi Baruch (an 18th century Hasidic master) had a grandson, Yechiel, who was once playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his friend to find him. After waiting a long time, he came out from his hiding place, but the other kid was nowhere in sight. Now Yechiel realized that the boy had not really looked for him at all. Weeping, he came to his grandfather to complain about his faithless friend. Rabbi Baruch’s eyes, too, brimmed with tears, and he said: God says the same thing; I hide, but no one wants to seek me!

This tale is touching on many levels, but one point in particular helps define humility. We, like Yechiel, might think the drama is about us, but really it isn’t. We might think the Days of Awe are only about self-examination, confession, and repentance. These take humility, but if we dwell there, we miss the true meaning of humility. We don’t practice it by dwelling on our multiple shortcomings, but on the One who can remove them, the One who says, “Seek me and live!” 

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