Anavah and Anvanus
The story of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza is very well known. It is introduced by Rabbi Yochanan, who asks, “’What is the meaning of the verse in Mishlei which reads, ‘Fortunate is the one who is always fearful, but the one who is hard of heart will fall to evil?’ (28:14) It was because of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza that Yerushalayim was destroyed.” (Gittin 55b)
An unnamed host was throwing a party, and invited his good friend Qamtza. Through an accident, the invitation went to Bar Qamtza. The host hated Bar Qamtza and refused to allow him to remain, even after Bar Qamtza offered to pay his way; even after he offered to pay for the half the simchah; even to pay for the whole affair! The host must have been relatively prestigious, as many of the leading rabbanim of the generation were in attendance. But not one of them spoke up. Bar Qamtza felt that a society in which none of its leaders would stand up to this injustice did not deserve to survive. And although his subsequent actions were evil, apparently Hashem agreed with his assessment.
Bar Qamtza went to Nero Caesar and told him that the Jews had rebelled. And as proof, he alleged that if Caesar would give an offering to the Beis HaMiqdash, the Jews would reject it. Caesar gave a healthy calf, but Bar Qamtza made some kind of blemish in it that invalidated it as an offering. The Rabbis wanted to offer it anyway, since the risk to life outweighs the halakhah. Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, saying that people would think that it means that blemished animals may be offered. Then they wanted to kill Bar Qamtza, so that he could not report back to the Romans. Again, Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos objected, as he thought it would teach people that the punishment for damaging an offering was death. Nero heard that his offering was refused, was convinced that the Jews were in rebellion, and after checking some portents, decided to attack.
Later in the Gemara (57a), Rabbi Elazar presents the lesson, “Come and see how great is the power of embarassment! For Hashem helped Bar Qamtza and destroyed His Temple and burnt His sanctuary.”
This lesson is far more intuitive than Rabbi Yochanan’s. He interrupts the story to comment, “Because of the ‘anvanus’ of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos our Temple was destroyed, our sanctuary burnt, and we were exiled from the land.” (56a) This “anvanus”, literally humble-person-ness, is a dysfunctional anavah (humility). The overwhelming majority of seifer Devarim is comprised of the final sermons of Moshe Rabbeinu – the most modest of people. True anavah is a full awareness of one’s abilities and a lack of attendant self-pride because one knows that G-d gave everything necessary to be even greater than one is. Anavah is an emotion that motivates, not cripples.
But how is Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos’s error nearly comparable in magnitude to the sins of the host, of Bar Qamtza, or of the guests who remained silent? Why does Rabbi Yochanan lay the blame at his feet? And, in fact, the very same Rabbi Yochanan introduces the story by saying “It was because of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza that Yerushalayim was destroyed,” not Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos!
A different gemara (Nedarim 81) provides an even more enigmatic reason for the a destruction of the Beis haMiqdash. Yirmiyahu asks, “For what reason did the Land perish and become parched like a desert . . .?” (9:10) The question was posed to sages and prophets, and they could not answer. Hashem Himself then replied, “For they have forsaken my Torah that I placed before them; they did not listen to My Voice nor follow it.” Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, people were learning Torah, but they neglected to recite Birchas HaTorah before they began learning every day. For this we lost the Beis HaMikash. But are we to understand that not making a berakhah is tantamount to not following Hashem’s Voice?
Why are there two or perhaps three berakhos before learning Torah? (Some rishonim consider “Veha’arev-Na” separate from “la’asoq”, while others count it as one long berakhah. Thus the two possible counts.) Most other mitzvos only have one berakhah.
The Ramban explains that only the first is a birkhas hamitzvah, a berakhah before a mitzvah like any other. The second berakhah is a blessing of praise and thanks, like that after food.
Birchas HaTorah is thanking Hashem for the changes that came with being the people of the Torah. Learning Torah without the realization that such study is intended to elevate the self loses its value. If one is not aware of the full grandeur of one’s potential, one is not open to the changes Torah is supposed to induce.
And what are those changes? To quote those berakhos, “Veha’arev-na – Please sweeten, Hashem our G-d, the words of Your Torah in our mouths and the mouths of You nation, the Home of Israel. And may we, our offspring, and the offspring of Your nation, the home of Israel, all of us, be knowers of Your name and studiers of Your Torah for its own sake…” “… Who has chosen us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.” Torah study cannot be a personal endeavor; it has to be part of our identity as part of the nation. Torah study without this appreciation can divide; it becomes a pursuit of my own knowledge, my own accomplishment. Torah study with its blessings is unifying, connecting me to the Jewish People.
True anavah motivates a struggle to accomplish, which constantly brings more worth into one’s life. To be an anav is to realize that the story is about us, and isn’t my autobiography. After describing the measure of a person’s soul in terms of how many people, how much of creation, is included in his “ani“, his “I” of personal identity, Rav Shimon writes (tr. mine):
If a person constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts
As part of something grand and eternal, I am confident in my worth, and motivated to leave my mark in our joint mission.
In contrast, when someone is plagued by “anvanus”, lacking belief in his own ability, how does he combat the feeling of worthlessness? Typically, there are two mechanisms: First, bragging. Since that person cannot find their validation internally, they try to get it reflected in the eyes of others. Second, if one needs to feel higher and yet doesn’t have a pedestal to climb on, they are likely going to place others in a hole. Sin’as chinam, undeserved hatred, is a means of feeling like one is greater by perceiving everyone else as something less.
Rabbi Zechariah ben Avqulos’s false “anavah” brought down the Temple, but not because he alone had this misperception. The whole story of Qamtza and Bar Qamtza is of similar false “anvanim.” Like the last generation of the previous Beis haMiqdash, this generation did not fully understand the purpose of Torah and therefore could not be thankful for what it meant for human potential. Since they could not see how to redeem themselves, they assuaged their feelings by spending their lives focusing on the flaws of others.
PS: You might wish to see the slightly different angle, but still consistent, thought in Esther’s Modesty – Adar’s Joy (Anavah and Anvanus). There R’ Zekharia ben Avqulus and Shaul are contrasted with Moshe and Esther, whose anavah lead to redemption.