Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Beha'alotekha 5759/1999
"Now Moses Was a Very Humble Man"
Prof. Dov Rappel
School of Education
In order to understand Moses' humility, we must know what "to be humble" really means. One way to arrive at a definition would be to study the opposite quality, pride.
The first thing we may note is that pride is not a quality which stands on its own, like mercy or cruelty, but an attendant trait; pride always stands in relation to something else. A person can take pride in his wisdom or heroism, but he is never proud or boastful of pride itself. Secondly, pride is always relative to other people. When a person says he is learned in Jewish subjects, that by itself is not a sign of pride. When a person boasts of his Jewish learning, he means to say that he knows more than others who are thought to be learned. Thirdly, a person is proud of those qualities that he considers important. Experience shows us and common sense supports the idea that a wrestler is not likely to be proud of his excellent memory, nor an historian to be proud of his ability to deliver or sustain blows.
One of Moses' outstanding qualities was his leadership. His greatest hour as a leader was neither the Exodus from Egypt, nor the Theophany at Mount Sinai, rather the moment he broke the tablets of the Covenant and smashed the golden calf. The Sages noted Moses' greatness in this deed in the their interpretation of the words "before the eyes of all Israel," with which the Torah concludes, saying, "his heart moved him to shatter the tablets before their eyes" (Rashi, following Sifre Deuteronomy). When he descended from Mount Sinai after forty days of communion face to face with the Divine Presence and saw the people's unruly behavior, Aaron's giving in, and the Levite's helplessness, he did not run away or give up. He stood alone in the face of tens of thousands, broke the tablets, punished thousands, and saved monotheism.
Nevertheless, the Torah does not gloss over the failings of Moses as a leader. At Massah Moses said, "Before long they will be stoning me"; at Kibroth-hattaavah ("the graves of craving") he lashed out saying, "Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them?" (Num. 11:22); he had to be advised by a gentile (Jethro) in order to properly organize the daily life of the community--"You shall also seek out from among all the people ..." (Ex. 18:21); he was at a loss in the uprising led by Korah--"When Moses heard this, he fell on his face" (Num. 16:4). As he wrote all this from the mouth of the Almighty he surely did not think to himself that he was drawing the portrait of a great national leader and statesman.
Thus we see that one of the preconditions for pride--being convinced that one excels in relation to one's particular talent--did not exist with Moses in all that pertained to the quality of leadership.
The second outstanding quality found in Moses was his prophetic spirit, as the Torah attests, "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses" (Deut. 34:10). This quality has two aspects: the human and the divine. The human aspect concerns the difference between a prophet and a common person; the divine aspect concerns the distance between the prophet and G-d. All prophets are somewhere between the two poles, between the human and the divine, no two being in a similar place. Moreover, even the place of one prophet is not fixed for all time. Moses approached the divine more closely than any other prophet; what is more, this superiority of his stood him in good stead at all times, as Maimonides explains very well in chapter 7 of Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah:
Wherein lies the difference between the prophetic spirit of Moses and that of all the other prophets? In that all the other prophets [were addressed] in a dream or a vision, but Moses stood awake and present ... all the other prophets, by means of a messenger, ... but Moses, not by means of a messenger, as it is said, "With him I speak mouth to mouth" (Num. 12:8) ... without parables, rather by seeing the thing as it is, without riddles or parables, ... All the other prophets fear and tremble and are faint, but not Moses ... The other prophets do not prophesy whenever they wish; but not so, Moses. Rather, whenever he wishes, the holy spirit envelopes him and the prophetic spirit comes upon him, and he does not have to attune himself for this to happen to him.
The Sages expressed through a homily the difference between Moses and Isaiah when they said:
Since Moses was close to the heavens he said, "Give ear, O heavens," (Deut. 332:1), [as one who stands close to a person and whispers into his ear] and since he was far from the earth he said, "Let the earth hear the words I utter" (ibid.). Along came Isaiah and juxtaposed, "Hear, O heavens" (Isaiah 1:2), being far from the heavens, and "give ear, O earth" (ibid.), being closer to the earth. (Sifre Deut. 306, Finkelstein edition, pp. 333-334.)
This prophetic greatness is the second area in which we can see Moses' humility. A parable will help us to explain this. It is like three chess players; one knows the game a little, the second is an experienced player, and the third, a world champion. When the second player plays against the first, the novice, of course he wins every time. But when he plays with the third player, the champion wins every game. The first one's admiration of the third player is naive: how great a player he is, always beating the second player who beat me. But the second one's admiration of the third player is deep: "What creativity, what foresight, what mastery of strategy." If the second player were to spend most of his time with the first player, he would probably become more than a bit proud. But he prefers to struggle at the feet of the third player, and the longer he spends in his company, the more humble he becomes in his own eyes.
As we have said, Moses came closer to knowing the Lord than any
other man of woman born. Therefore, he knew more than others
how lowly he was as a human being. Not despite his prophetic greatness,
but because of it, he was "a very humble man, more so than
any other man on earth" (Num. 12:3). Moses neither extolled
his own leadership nor compared his prophetic status to anyone
else; in both these areas, he was the most modest of men.
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