Giants among us


Do you have any teachers who made a great impact on your life? In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson remembers some of his great teachers and the lessons of humility that he learned from them. He draws parallels between his teachers, Moshe Rabeinu, and the lessons of humility found in the Torah portion Beha’alotcha.

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I want to ask you a question: Is there someone who’s been an important teacher in your life? Thankfully, I can think of a bunch: teachers in elementary school, professors in college, rabbis in rabbinical school.

(Photo: Pexels/ Max Fischer)

When I think of them, I sometimes remember specific things they taught me: memorizing times tables with my fourth grade teacher, Ms. Davis; reading Paradise Lost my junior year of college with Professor John Rogers; learning the Jewish legal rules for when a piece of meat falls into a pot of macaroni and cheese with Rabbi Dov Linzer.

In my teenage and young adult years, I discovered a particular kind of teacher — one who not only teaches information but also guides your development as a person.

Earlier this year, on one of our Hannukah episodes, I talked about one of them, Larry Livingston, who was an important mentor at music camp.

Today I’m going to talk about two more, Rabbi Yitz and Blu Greenberg.

Now the thing about Yitz and Blu is that, in addition to being simply amazing people, they are also giants. Like, world-shaping forces of nature.

Blu Greenberg is sort of the Betty Friedan of Orthodox Judaism. She’s often referred to as the mother of Orthodox Jewish feminism.

Through her books, articles, teaching, and activism, Blu has changed the face of the Jewish world. Today there are Orthodox women who study Talmud and Jewish law and become authorities who lead communities.

This would have been unheard of a century or even fifty years ago, and it’s a reality because of Blu.

And Yitz, well Yitz is a titan. (Full disclosure: I wrote my doctoral dissertation about him.) If you look at virtually any major development in American Jewish life in the last sixty years, from creating the US Holocaust Museum in Washington DC to the idea of Birthright trips, you’ll probably find Yitz involved with it.

His writing, teaching, and work has been enormously influential. (Seriously, the resume is too long to recite here. Just… Google Yitz Greenberg.) 

When I first met Yitz in my early twenties, I didn’t really know any of this. My cousin knew him from work and, aware that I was trying to figure out what to do with my life and whether to go to rabbinical school, she suggested I go talk to Yitz, which I did in his office in Manhattan one day. 

It’s amazing to me now to think that, in the midst of all the important people Yitz met with at that time —he had just been appointed by President Clinton as head of the US Holocaust Museum — in the midst of all of that, he made an hour to talk with me.

Why would he waste his time with me, a little pisher in my early twenties?

Yet, as I would come to understand, Yitz is one of the world’s greatest teachers of the virtue of anava, humility. As much as he has accomplished in his life, Yitz never let it get to his head.

Like Blu, he achieved great things while remaining grounded, approachable, and self-effacing. He never thought he was too important to meet with anyone, even, yes, tiny unimportant me.

I went on to be a research assistant for Yitz, and had the privilege of both studying from and teaching with him.

The summer after my third year of rabbinical school I worked in Yitz and Blu’s home organizing their enormous library.

Yitz and I would have a good time talking about books and on a hot afternoon Blu — this amazing, generational leader of the Jewish people — poked her head in and asked, “Josh, would you like a smoothie?” Again, extraordinary humility. And seriously, she made a mean smoothie.

But Yitz and Blu aren’t the first incredible Jewish thinkers to also be simple, modest, humble people.

The first one that comes to mind, for me, is Moses. Funny, because he seems so larger than life, we literally call him Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses, our teacher.

But in the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha, God describes Moses as, quote, “the most humble person on the face of the earth.” It’s kind of an amazing thing to say. Moses, the Moses, the great leader, the great lawgiver, the guy who talks face to face with God

How could Moses be an exemplar of anava, humility? Rashi, a medieval commentator on the Bible, says the Torah means that he was patient.

Another commentator says it means he was at peace. I like to think it means that Moses abided by the maxim, “No more than my place, no less than my space.”

Because humility isn’t only about saying, “I’m such a nothing!” It’s about recognizing both your strengths and your weaknesses — and patiently accepting them.

It’s about not being envious of other people while also being aware of what you can uniquely do and contribute to the world.

It’s about keeping things in perspective and knowing that, as the Beatles put it, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. 

So this week, I want to invite you to bring a little more attention to this value of anava, proper humility. Step one in practicing anava involves simply bringing kind attention to the state of our ego.

So try to find some time this week to get quiet so you can bring some curious, non-judgmental attention to the truth of your experience. It could be through meditation, journaling, a long walk. 

Whatever mode you choose, try to notice any underlying emotional state which may be impacting your sense of self: fear, guilt, shame, pain, excitement.

Bring some kind attention to all of these thoughts and feelings, and the ways they show up in your body. Notice how and when, over the course of a day, you might tend to inflate and deflate your own sense of self.

Try to become aware of the degree to which your inner sense of self is puffed-up or diminished, out of proportion to what you can feel is its “right size.” Try to notice whether and how you overstep physical or emotional boundaries — and when you shy away from encounters with others.

When you spend time reflecting on these questions, you might come to see more clearly your options for responding wisely in situations when you might otherwise just react by taking up too much or too little space.

You can ask yourself, when do I tend to shrink or disappear? When do I overstep my place? What thoughts and emotions do these situations generate in me? And how can I calmly, mindfully, wisely set down that reactivity and choose a wiser, more genuinely humble response?

Of all his many teachings, the one that Yitz Greenberg may be best known for is popularizing the rabbinic teaching that every human being is made in the Divine image.

No joke: If you hear someone teach that today, chances are you can trace it back ultimately to someone who heard Yitz teach it. 

Yitz taught that, because we’re all made in God’s image, all of us are unique, all of us are infinitely valuable, and all of us are equal. Humility, properly understood, expresses all three of these truths at once.

To be humble like Moses is to recognize we’re all equal, so I’m no better than you. But it’s also to recognize that you and I are both worth an infinite sum.

And it’s also to recognize that your life and mine are both unique works of art — and that all of us have something amazing and irreplaceable to bring to the world. 

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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