Parshat Behaalotecha (5770)

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“Ve’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od mi’kol ha’adam asher al pnei ha’adama – And the man Moshe was very humble, more than any man on the face of the earth!” –  Bamidbar 12:3

You may have heard about the rabbi who was so humble that his members presented him with a solid gold lapel pin that said “World’s most humble rabbi.”  The next Shabbat he wore it to shul, so they took it away from him!

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The Parsha this week has some valuable lessons for us in humility from Moshe Rabbeinu – Moses.

Despite being the national leader and saviour, miracle worker, mountaineer and Torah recipient, as well as G-d’s amanuensis and interlocutor Moshe always remained humble and self-effacing. Yes, he was authoritative and in command, and at times he was angry, upset and disappointed with his flock – but he was always humble.

French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu is quoted as saying: “To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them,” and this is a lesson we get very clearly from Moshe.

There are two related incidents in the parsha which highlight this for us, both of them shortly after an emotive scene between Moses and his Creator.

To set the scene we must picture the Jewish people as they travel in the wilderness. They have escaped Egypt after 210 years of back-breaking slavery in a theatrical and awesome display of Divine power. Plague after plague was unleashed on their captors until they consented to release the slaves, miracles never before seen by human eyes. This was followed by the gravity-defying separation of thousands of tons of sea water, safe evacuation of the fleeing Israelites and the subsequent drowning of their adversaries. Capping off the Exodus experience was a  multi-sensory experience culminating in a glorious Divine revelation and declamation of the Ten Commandments. While this is going on they are being nourished by heavenly food – manna, and protected from the harsh desert environment by a wall of cloud.

Only a “stiff-necked people” could be ungrateful after all that, and they most certainly are. Not content with the taste of freedom or the flavour of the manna, the people begin to complain. They crave the meat, fish and other delicacies they ate in Egypt, and they weep in distress – oh, for a pickled meat sandwich!

It is at this point that Moses gives up and cries out to G-d. He realises he can no longer hope to satisfy this needy people, and he feels they will be the death of him. “Did I conceive this entire people, or did I give birth to it?” he asks G-d. “I cannot carry this congregation alone … rather kill me now,” is his impassioned plea. The response he gets is sound business practice – delegate, delegate, and delegate. G-d tells him to gather seventy elders together, who would receive a share in the Divine Inspiration resting in Moshe. They could then help lighten the mammoth burden of managing an entire nation.

As soon as the seventy have been endowed with the Divine spirit they begin to prophecy. Two of them (Eldad and Medad) prophecy of shocking events in the future, revealing that Moses would pass away, and that Joshua would be leading the people into the Holy Land!

Joshua is shocked by this and turns to Moses: “My master Moshe,” he cried, “destroy (alt. jail) them!”

Moshe, master of humility, hears the prophecy of his own demise and simply responds, “Are you being zealous for my sake? If only all the people were prophets!” Not only does Moshe not object to power-sharing with others, or to the sharing of his Divine Inspiration with them, he is even able to hear tell of his death and the loss of his own personal dream – to enter the Holy Land – and to stay calm, collected and supportive of the new prophets: This is true humility.

Ah, you might think, humility in the public arena is expected. What about his behaviour in private? Here the Torah gives us another anecdote, related to the first. Because Moshe had to be ready at the drop of a tablet to receive an audience with G-d, he had refrained from physical intimacy with his wife, Tzipporah, thus always remaining in a heightened spiritual state. His siblings found this out and were discussing this “improper” behaviour. They are later rebuked for this by G-d and in turn repent, but what is interesting is the Torah comment here: “Ve’ha’ish Moshe anav me’od mi’kol ha’adam asher al pnei ha’adama – And the man Moshe was very humble, more than any man on the face of the earth!”

What is the connection of this comment to the situation he is in? The Sifri answers that the statement here is because even when Miriam and Aaron confronted Moses with the accusation that he was mistreating his wife he remained silent. His humility was such that he did not tell them he was acting this way on G-d’s instructions – he simply remained silent.

Let us learn from Moshe valuable lessons in humility. To be humble is not to think you are worthless and to disappear when things go wrong; to be humble is to know your qualities and abilities and to fight for your rights and for those around you. But to be humble also means never be afraid – in public or private – of criticism or competition, for both criticism and competition can be used to raise us to the greatest of heights.

Shabbat Shalom – Rabbi Zalman Lent

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