A Paradox of Greatness and Humility

Beha'alotekha By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Jun 5, 2004 / 5764 | Torah Commentary

America does not like wimps. We want our leaders to exude certainty and resolve, vigor and self-confidence. We deem a leader wise when decisive. The image, though, hardly comports with that of scripture. In the portrait of Moses offered up by this week’s parashah, we are treated to a leader conscious of his own fallibility. The Torah does not stress, to the exclusion of all other traits, Moses’ special charisma. True, unlike other prophets, he is on such intimate terms with God that God addresses him at any time of day in unmediated fashion. No need for somnolence and dreams. In reprimanding Aaron and Miriam for their presumption of equality, God affirms Moses’ unique stature: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord” (12:8).

And yet Moses is also portrayed as a leader afflicted by self-doubt, acutely aware of the limits of his own capacity. Being close to God does not make him omnipotent. On the contrary, the intimacy allows him to serve as a mirror for God’s own frustration at Israel’s repeated lack of compliance to God’s will. Miracles do not engender long-term faith. In the wake of still another bitter outburst by the people, Moses confesses to God that he is at wits’ end. Overcome by weariness, he pleads for help. He is no longer up to the task of leading alone. God obliges him by agreeing to a shared leadership. Seventy elders infused with a tincture of Moses’ charisma will ease his burden. A form of collective leadership terminates governance by absolute power.

Moses complies willingly. Nor does he share Joshua’s anger at Eldad and Medad, who are not among the seventy elders brought to the Tent of Meeting. Nevertheless, they too are touched by the spirit and go into ecstasy like the others. Indeed, Moses rebukes Joshua: “Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets that the Lord put His spirit upon them?” (11:29).

Later, the Torah generalizes this remarkable instance of self-effacement by Moses into a pervasive character trait. Just prior to deflecting the criticism of Aaron and Miriam, it asserts ringingly that “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (12:3). Clearly, the intent is to juxtapose grandeur with humility. Moses ranks in a class by himself in a double sense: his prophetic exceptionalism cohabits with a most humble disposition.

It is noteworthy that the Rabbis make this paradox a mark of Jewish piety. Nearness to God eliminates any trace of human arrogance. In a midrash constructed in the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba debacle, Rabbi Elazar the son of R. Yose, who saw with his own eyes the Temple implements brought by Titus to Rome, pondered why God should ever have been drawn to single out the Jewish people. To make his point, he recast a verse in which Moses had God declare: “It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the Lord set His heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples” (Deuteronomy 7:17). Nevertheless, the midrash continues: “The Holy One Praised Be He told Israel that I love you because each time I bestow greatness upon you, you shrink yourself before Me. I bestowed greatness upon Abraham and he said to Me: ‘But I am but dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27). Upon Moses and Aaron and they said: ‘For who are we?’ (Exodus 16:7). Upon David and he said: ‘But I am a worm, less than human’ (Psalm 22:7).

The midrash has a polemical bite to it. Gentile rulers, contrastingly, react to divine beneficence with arrogance. R. Elazar assembles examples from Nimrod to Nebuchadnezzar to show that divine grace merely stoked their lust for power (BT Hullin 89a). To be sure, within its historical context, this midrash is a valiant effort to make a virtue of necessity, to find a modicum of solace in the wake of an unmitigated disaster. In the eyes of God, character outranks military prowess.

But on a deeper level, the midrash echoes the value system of the Torah. Greatness and humility constitute a paradox only on the surface. A genuine experience of God shrivels the ego. In the face of infinity, no speck of humanity can retain any significance. A candle in broad daylight goes unnoticed. The exceptional relationship of Moses to God is precisely what made him the most humble of humans. His sense of scale was altered. God replaced man as the measure of all things. Piety that intensifies the pursuit of power is its own refutation.

In commenting on the midrash, the Talmud prefers the exclamation by Moses and Aaron. Their self-effacement was total. Abraham and David still compared themselves to objects that exist; Moses and Aaron did not, as if their existence counted for absolutely nothing (ve-nahnu mah). The phrase evoked Job’s description of God as “suspending earth over emptiness [beli mah]” (Job 26:7). The concord between creator and creature, accentuated by the contentless Hebrew word “mah,” was complete. To witness supreme grandeur effaces the self in an aura of silence.

Shabbat Shalom, 

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat B’ha·alot’kha are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.