Behaalotekha: How to Be Great ... and Humble

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Just as I was closing the newspaper recently, my eye landed on someone’s angry statement, “I never let anyone disrespect me.”  I didn’t read the article and don’t know what he or she experienced in life to produce that philosophy.  Perhaps it was terrible discrimination and oppression and the speaker had resolved to resist it.  If so, it would certainly be understandable. 


But what I actually thought in the moment before I got up from the table was, “How different is that sentiment from Jewish values.” 


Open disrespect seems to be a characteristic of our time, and presumably, no one on the receiving end likes it.  But does that mean that when it is directed to us, we should necessarily: 1. Take offense, and 2. Forcefully react/respond/object?  And if we don’t do so, are we therefore meek pushovers? 


Surely, no one could characterize the biblical Moses as such.  He grew up in Pharoah’s palace as a prince of Egypt, one of the most privileged and powerful men in the world.  When he saw a slave being beaten, he didn’t recoil but killed the overseer (Exodus 2:11–12).  Fleeing and arriving in Midian, he defended shepherdesses from male shepherds who were bullying them; (Exodus 2:16–1).  Later, G-d spoke to him and chose him to confront Pharoah and to lead a successful revolt against Pharoah and his army.  


Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and then talked G-d out of destroying them in the Golden Calf incident, after which he ordered a purge of the instigators.  Moses received the Ten Commandments, then smashed them in fury and made the Israelites drink their dust.  He acted as sole, and then chief judge and interpreter of the Divine will.  He repeatedly put down revolts and challenges to his authority.  He led the Israelites for forty years under very difficult circumstances and recommended to G-d qualities for his successor.  Passive?  Meek?  That couldn’t possibly describe Moses!


And yet, the Torah describes this very man as “very humblemore humble than any other man on earth?” (Numbers 12:3).  It seems to be a paradox.  If one can be a great leader -- assertive, forceful, decisive, unintimidated by King or G-d -- and yet be the most humble man in the world, what does it mean to be humble?  


Let’s recall the circumstances in which the Torah so described Moses – (and recall that Moses himself wrote those words!)


Moses’s own brother and sister had criticized him because he married a “Cushite woman.”  Then, they showed their jealousy by saying “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?”  The Torah does not record Moses’s reaction – if any -- but the implication is that he neither said nor did anything in response to these attacks on his wife and on himself and his authority.  It is at this point that we are told that Moses “is a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.”  It is not Moses but G-d who takes offense.  G-d admonishes Moses and Aaron and strikes Miriam with white scales.  And how does Moses react to this?  Not with righteous satisfaction.  Rather, he cries out, “O G-d, pray heal her!” (Numbers 12:13). 


Humbleness (yes; it’s a word, though many use “humility” instead) is not a character trait that we typically extol.  Not that excessive pride and arrogance are seen as virtues, but neither is excessive humbleness, which we see as their opposite extreme.  But that is not the Jewish view of humility, in Hebrew ענוה (anavah).


Our Sages, both contemporary and historical, have identified several attributes of humbleness:


Rabbi Nachum Amsel wrote: “the quality that made Moses truly humble is that he did not ascribe any of his greatest to himself. He understood that all of his greatness came from the Almighty.”  


According to the Talmud, “It once happened that R. Eliezer stepped down before the ark and offered twenty-four supplications and was not answered. R. Akiva then went down and said, ‘Our Father, our King...,’ and was answered. A Heavenly voice proclaimed, ‘It is not that this one is greater than the other, but only that this one is forbearing, while the other is not’” (Ta’anis 25b).  This also from the Talmud (Yoma 23a): It is better to remain silent and be among those “who are insulted but do not insult, who listened to their disgrace and do not respond.” 


Bahya b. Asher tells us that Moses's "exceeding" humility was caused by his unwavering focus on his goal of, shalom bayit, the family harmony so esteemed by our tradition (Kad Hakemah). Of all the praiseworthy qualities he possesses, it is Moses as the model family man that the Bible chooses to honor for his personal code of anavah.


Mussar teacher Alan Morinis explains that: “In traditional Jewish understanding, humility has nothing to do with being the lowest, most debased, shrinking creature on earth.… real humility is always associated with healthy self-esteem. … Being humble doesn't mean being a nobody, it just means being no more of a somebody than you ought to be.” 


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin observes that humility also leads us to become more tolerant and accepting. Telushkin notes that Rashi, Judaism's most important biblical and talmudic commentator, identifies tolerance, along with modesty, as the defining characteristic of humility (see his commentary on this verse). Thus, precisely because Hillel and his disciples were not certain that they were entirely in the right, they tolerated opposing views, realizing that, though these views might be wrong in their conclusions, they might learn something from them. Therefore, a humble person bears no ill will toward those who disagree with him. Such an individual is aware that people have the right to understand the world differently, and that their perceptions might have something to teach him. 


King Solomon, to whom the book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, is commonly attributed, wrote: “One should act kindly toward other people and speak well of them, judge them favorably, not malign them, and forgive them for speaking ill of him and disparaging him--even if they do not deserve it, as it says: “Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts” (Koheles 10:20). And, he wrote: “Pay no attention to the words they speak....For you know in your heart that, many a time, you too have ridiculed others” (Koheles 7:21-22).


In our tradition, even G-d is seen as humble.  The Talmud (Megillah 31a) describes G-d as modest because He cares for the weakest in society.  According to Isaiah (57:15), G-d dwells in the high and holy place with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit.  


Finally, consider this passage from a 16th-century work: "… the Holy, Blessed One is an insulted sovereign who suffers humiliation far beyond human imagination. For certainly nothing is hidden from His watchful vision; and there is never a moment when a man is not nourished and maintained by the supernal energy which flows to him. Then never did a man sin toward Him at a time when He was not providing for the man's existence and ability to function. And still, though the man sins with that energy [from the Divine realm], He does not restrain him at all but bears the insult… and yet supplies energy and grants the man His favor…" (Second paragraph in Tomar D'vorah by R. Moses Cordovero (1522-1570), pupil of R. Joseph Karo and R. Solomon Alkabetz, who lived in Safed, where he taught kabbalah.)  

So will the Torah scholar reflect, "If the Almighty is tolerant and patient with my shortcomings and inadequacies, can I be different with others? And he will consider, with the Torah's insights, "If human conceit is a miserable sham, why grow angry if insulted?" If he is stirred to anger, the Torah will have taught him to rule over his destructive emotions.  (Irving M. Bunim)


So, from these examples it’s clear that our tradition provides a composite of what it means to be humble.  Not meek, passive, or lacking in self-esteem, but caring for the welfare of others – especially those of lesser means – with the courage to stand up and act on their behalf.  Someone who – unlike the speaker quoted in my newspaper -- does not take insult at being insulted, conscious both that the insult may be deserved, in whole or in part; and, even if not, that he himself has also wrongly judged others.  

Someone who tolerates and learns from those with other views.  Someone who values shalom bayit over being right.  Who is forgiving.  And who, even with healthy self-esteem, is modest, crediting G-d and others, as well as his own efforts, for his successes.  


As Rabbi Telushkin points out, despite Moses’s many outstanding qualities, nowhere does the Bible refer to him as "courageous," "a defender of justice," or as "compassionate."  Indeed, there is only one virtue that the Bible explicitly ascribes to Moses, and that is his humility. 


That this is the only virtue the Torah attributes to its greatest hero is itself the most significant indication of the importance of humility in the Jewish tradition.  


May we take this to heart and practice humility as well. 



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb