“The Nature of Moses’ Humility”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat B’ha’alot’cha, we learn that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses concerning the Kushite woman that Moses had married, and from whom he had separated.

According to Scripture, Numbers 12:2, their complaint about Moses was: “Was it only to Moses to whom G-d spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?” They were, in effect, saying that we are also prophets, yet we have not neglected our family obligations.

The Torah reports that G-d heard what Miriam and Aaron said. Although it may be assumed that Moses heard what was being said about him, there seems to be no response from Moses. Instead, the Torah tells us (Numbers 12:3): “V’hah’eesh Moshe ah’nahv m’ohd, mee’kohl hah’adam asher ahl p’nay hah’ah’dah’mah,” Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.

G-d then intervenes on behalf of Moses. Drawing Miriam and Aaron aside, He explains to them (Numbers 12:8) that Moses is different from all other prophets, unique and unparalleled. “Only Moses speaks mouth to mouth with G-d, and sees Him in a clear vision, and not in riddles. How is it that you do not fear to speak against My servant, Moses?”

G-d’s anger flares against Miriam and Aaron, and once the cloud departs from the Tabernacle, Miriam is covered with the dread disease, tza’rah’aht (leprosy). Aaron too is punished, having to watch his sister suffer so, while he himself escapes physical punishment for the same offense.

What does it mean when Scripture states that Moses was “ah’nahv,” humble? Among the many human characteristics, there is no human characteristic that is so broadly praised by our rabbis, as is humility. The rabbis of the Talmud, in Sotah 5b, say that those who are of humble spirit before the Al-mighty are considered great in G-d’s eyes. While one who brings a burnt offering or a meal offering receives reward only for the offering that he has brought, one who is of humble spirit, is regarded by the Al-mighty as if he had brought every possible sacrifice.

The Talmud, in Sotah 5a, informs us that humility is one of the qualities that G-d values most. After all, G-d Himself chose the “humble” mountain of Sinai upon which to reveal the Torah. He similarly appeared to Moses from the “humble” Burning Bush, rather than from any of His more imposing creations.

The Bible not only says that Moses was humble, “ah’nahv,” but states emphatically that he was, “ah’nahv m’ohd,” very humble.

The rabbis are challenged by this concept, questioning whether Moses was perhaps naive. Was Moses so totally unaware, never thinking that there might be another person who could measure up to him? And if he was aware of his own superiority, how could it possibly be that Moses was indeed more humble than any other human being?

In response, some commentators suggest that Moses’ humility flowed from the fact that he never considered his own greatness as earned or deserved, but only that, for one reason or another, he merited to be endowed with an elevated soul from Heaven. It was not beyond Moses to reason that perhaps another person with a similar “special soul” would have outshined and out-achieved what Moses had accomplished.

The description of Moses’ unparalleled humility, cited in the Midrash Hagadol (Mishnat Rabi Eliezer, parasha 10, p. 181) perhaps best sums up the uniqueness of Moses. The Midrash asks, What does it mean that Moses was more humble than any other human being? By way of explanation the Midrash suggests that there are three classes of human beings: Those who are great due to a Heavenly gift; those who are great as a result of being born into greatness, such as monarchy; and those who are great despite the fact that they are commoners, bereft of any special status or class.

Moses saw himself as a beneficiary of all three of these endowments. After all, Moses started as a prince, the adopted son of the daughter of the great Pharaoh. But he did not allow his majesty to overshadow his modesty. And that is why, even though he was a prince, Moses went out to his brothers and saw their travail (Exodus 2:11).

The Midrash reports that Moses actually volunteered to work with the Israelite slaves in order to feel the people’s pain. Similarly, even when he fled to Midian, Moses, the “prince,” did not use his lofty status to look the other way when he saw the daughters of Jethro being unfairly abused by the Midianite shepherds (Exodus 2:17).

Even though Moses had been handpicked by Heaven, he still remained humble. After all, says the Midrash, during the battle with Amalek the Torah states (Exodus 17:12) that Moses’ hands became heavy, and that they placed a stone under him. Wasn’t there a pillow or cushion to be found, upon which Moses could rest? There certainly was, but Moses purposely chose to participate in the pain of the community, and did not allow himself to gloat and proclaim, “I am your king.”

And even at the time of the great dispute with Korach and his followers, Scripture tells us (Number 16:25) that Moses did not wait for Datan and Abiram to seek him out. Instead Moses went to them to seek peace, since “Their dispute is not against me, it is against G-d.” Again, when Eldad and Maidad prophesied (Numbers 11:26-29), and Joshua pleaded with Moses to arrest them, Moses meekly asks, “Are you [Joshua] jealous for me? After all, it was I who asked G-d to appoint seventy elders to help share my burden. Don’t you remember, Joshua, that when G-d first asked me to lead the Jewish people, I declined by saying (Exodus 4:13) ‘Sh’lach nah b’yad tishlach,’ send anyone else but me?”

Although the Midrash fails to state as much, Moses simply saw himself as a very ordinary person, without any reason to exhibit pridefulness or arrogance.

Regarding humility, the Meshech Chochmah (Commentary on the Pentateuch by R’ Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, author of the classic work, Ohr Sameach), in parashat Korach, insightfully notes that there are those who humble themselves only before the general masses. But, before those who are of equal importance, their purported humility suddenly vanishes. Moses’ humility was ever-present, before the humbled masses and before the most noble lords, as well.

The K’tav Sofer (1815-1879, Rabbi Abraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer of Pressburg, leader of non-Chassidic Hungarian Jewry) points to three types of humble individuals. One who is humble in the hope that he will become recognized and honored by others. A second, who is humble for the sake of heaven. A third, who simply does not find anything worthy in himself to merit being arrogant.

The Ba’al Shem Tov (R’ Israel ben Eliezer, 1700-1760, the founder of the Chassidic movement) would say that the truly humble are not those who choose to walk by foot rather than ride in the wagon, but rather those, who without fanfare, ride in the wagon, but act meekly.

It was our great leader, Moses, who lived up to these standards and much more. That is why Moses is deservedly described as the most humble person on the face of the earth.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

The wonderful festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah at Sinai 3323 years ago, is observed this year on Tuesday evening, June 7th, and continues through Thursday night, June 9, 2011. “Chag Shavuot Samayach.” Have a happy and festive Shavuot.