Parshat Bamidbar (5770)

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Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth – Bamidbar 12:3

I don’t know how closely those here in Ireland were following the UK elections recently, but there was a fascinating exchange this week which I think we can all learn from. Newly elected Prime Minister, David Cameron, was reminded by a reporter that he had once described Nick Clegg (now Deputy Prime Minister) as his “favourite joke” and was asked if he regretted that comment.

His response was perfectly PC. He admitted making the comment and then added that his goal was to govern together with his former rival, and therefore, “If it means swallowing some humble pie (to do that), and it means eating some of your words, I can’t think of a more excellent diet.”

Now of course politicians are politicians, and we know the old quote, “You can’t  fool all the people all the time – but you must fool them during the campaign” but despite the messenger, the message here is important: Sometimes the best thing for us in this world of conflict is a little humility. For we might be at the top of the world now, but the world has a funny habit of slowly turning, and those we looked down on previously might end up as our partner, our employer, our mother-in-law (G-d forbid), or even our parole officer!

Humility is one of the themes of Shavuot, and of this week’s parsha. Any school kid will tell you why Mount Sinai was picked as the site for the declamation of the Ten Commandments – because it was a small, humble mount rather than a high and mighty Everest.  G-d rests his presence in humble places. The name of this parsha – Bamidbar (In the Desert)– is also very significant. Of all the prime locations in the world for the Torah to be given this seems like a very strange choice. Why not in Jerusalem, or Chevron, or even Paris, London or New York? Why is the Torah given in a desolate and barren region of the world, with no civilisation, infrastructure, government or shul?

The answer possibly is the same: humility. G-d is giving us a clear and eternal message to His people – the People of the Book. How do we get to “own” the Torah? How do we acquire this precious gift? – Only with humility. When we compare ourselves to the barren desert, when we make no self aggrandising claims of status, achievement, power, wealth or knowledge – then we can begin to acquire the Torah.

Moses, at the top of Judaism’s Wall of Fame, is described in the Torah as more humble than any person on the face of the earth, despite his towering stature, powerful intellect, prime leadership role and constant communication with G-d. Because despite his tremendous talents and abilities he did not look down on others, but treated everyone with the greatest of love and respect – and perhaps it is only because he embodied this trait of humility that he was appointed by G-d to be the leader of the Nation.

As we prepare to receive the Torah again this Shavuot, let us learn from Moses that the key to receiving and understanding the Torah is true humility, and let us live by the famous quote of  Ben Zoma in Chapter four of Avot: Who is wise? One who learns from every man.

Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Zalman Lent

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