The Importance of Being Humble

Beha'alotekha By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 24, 2013 / 5773

An unfortunate incident mars the otherwise solid familial bond between Moses and his siblings in Parashat Beha’alotekha. While in Hazerot, Aaron and Miriam engage in disparaging talk about their brother’s marriage to a Cushite woman. Jealousy sparks their venom as they malign their brother and declare, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2). To Aaron and Miriam’s dismay, God “hears” their provocative words, holds them accountable, and punishes Miriam with a plague of leprosy. In the midst of this troubling episode, we receive a striking description of Moses and the depth of his relationship with God: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Num. 12:3). God continues, “With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord” (Num. 12:8). What is the import of such a qualification of Moses and his intimate relationship with God? How may we better understand Moses’s essence?

Yeshayahu Leibowitz writes,

No place in Torah does it state that Moses was wiser than any man, nor does it say that he was more righteous than any man, nor does it say that he was mightier than any man, even though we can deduce from events that he was wise, with the greatest comprehension of any man and that he was righteous and mighty. But the Torah finds it proper to stress only one thing: that Moses was more humble than any other man . . . Humility without any doubt, is a high level of human perfection. Human nature is such that each person considers himself to be great and important—if not consciously, at least subconsciously. In other words, it is not natural for a person to be humble . . . It is only one who attains the level of Moses, and who really “understands and knows God,” that really realizes that no man can understand and know God. He attains the truest and greatest humility. (Accepting the Yoke of Heaven, 134–135)

To be humble, as Leibowitz explains, is to strive for the one of the highest levels of “human perfection.” Pridefulness too often becomes a stumbling block in the pursuit of power. Learning to become humble allows one to internalize the discipline of self-contraction, and in so doing, makes space for the wisdom and inspiration of others. Each of us contains only part of an eternal Truth. By Moses’s modeling what it is to be humble and the Torah’s keen emphasis on this quality, we are encouraged to strive to emulate one of the great leaders of the Israelites and the Jewish People.