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Beha'alosecha 5781: Great Enough to be Humble

Be'halot'cha (Numbers 8-12 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! As a proud member of the “Boomer” generation I can certainly identify with the sentiment relating to the undesirable location to which this world is heading (hint – it ends with “in a hand basket”). Okay, in the interest of full disclosure, I just barely make it into Gen X, but more and more I feel like I identify with the “Boomers.”

Of course Gen X, Gen Y, and Gen Z (and yes, the “Zillennials” as well) have their own very defined opinions on what they feel are the outdated values of previous generations. Each generational subset has a campaign to remake the world according to their view. In brief, each segment feels a deep need to rescue society from the others. After all, each one “knows” that they are absolutely right.

Perhaps what this world needs, more than anything, is a healthy dose of humility.

But in truth, humility is an elusive concept. Our 21st century society doesn’t really value, or respect, and definitely doesn’t reward, humility. Observe the not-so-humble examples set by our politicians, sports stars, entertainers, and captains of industry. Considering that these four segments of society are basically all that one hears or reads about in print and other media, the vast majority of society is inundated with this soul corrosive value system.

The world we live in encourages us to create personal brands (YouTube channels, Instagram and Twitter accounts, etc.) to seek fame and fortune and, of course, to spend lavishly on ourselves. Bottom line, we are driven to a ME – ME – ME mindset. Small wonder we have embraced the iPhone, iPad, iMac, and the most popular picture is a “selfie.”

Is it any wonder the world headed in the direction it is?

Luckily, we have a Torah that is God’s gift to humanity, an “owner’s manual” if you will, to guide us and put us back on the proper path. In this week’s Torah portion we learn something extraordinary about the nature of Moses and how he managed to stay humble.

At the end of this week’s Torah reading we find the remarkable incident in which Moses’ sister Miriam inadvertently sins by speaking loshon hora (“gossip”) about Moses. Here is the background to the incident.

Moses felt that he had to be ready to converse with the Almighty at any moment and he therefore chose to be ritually pure at all times. This decision meant that he had to refrain from intimacy with his wife, Tzipporah.

Miriam learned of Moses’ conduct by a chance remark of his wife Tzipporah. When Miriam became aware that her younger brother willfully separated from his wife, she did not stand idly by, but rather voiced her protest, to correct what to her was a reprehensible situation.

Moses, the greatest prophet that ever was, differs from all other prophets in several respects. Perhaps the two biggest differences are that God spoke to Moses “face to face” and that he was able to receive prophecy at any moment, even while fully awake (all other prophets fell into a sleep-like trance to receive a veiled communication from the Almighty).

Not realizing that God had approved of Moses behavior, and feeling it was unjustifiable, Miriam criticized Moses to his older brother, Aaron, in the hope of perhaps rectifying the situation. Since both Aaron and Miriam were prophets as well, but were not required to withdraw from normal family life, in their view what Moses was doing was wrong.

In all likelihood, Miriam’s intentions were pure and upright, but she erred in her basic evaluation of Moses. Moses was not like her and Aaron, and despite her proper intentions she was immediately punished for her criticism with a bout of a spiritually caused leprosy-like skin condition.  

To highlight her error, the Almighty suddenly appeared to her and Aaron, when they were both ritually impure (and consequently sent them scrambling for water to purify themselves – see Rashi’s commentary on Numbers 12:4) – thereby illustrating to them why Moses had chosen to stay ritually pure and that the Almighty Himself had concurred with Moses’ decision.

Here is what the great Maimonides had to say about this incident (Tumas Tzoraas 16:10); “Consider what happened to Miriam, who was older than Moses, raised him on her knee and risked her life for him, and did not intend to speak negatively about Moses, for she only erred in comparing him to all the other prophets. Moreover, Moses took no offense to what she said because, as the verse attests, ‘The man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth’ (Numbers 12:3). Even so, she was immediately afflicted with leprosy.”

In fact, the only response from Moses that the Torah records is that he immediately prayed for his sister’s recovery; (it’s also probably the shortest prayer ever uttered by a rabbi) “Please God, heal her now” (ibid 12:13).

Even though being ranked #1 in humility seems to contain some element of cognitive dissonance, the Torah states outright that Moses was the most modest person alive (although one can only imagine his reaction when the Almighty asked him to write those words into the Torah).

Still, one has to believe that Moses was well aware of his greatness. After all, he was chosen to lead the Jewish nation out of Egypt and bring about the most wondrous miracles. Then, Hashem designated him at Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and was the only one permitted at the top of Mount Sinai. Finally, Moses was undoubtedly aware that his prophecy was on a higher plane than any other prophet – before or since.

Moses was obviously aware that he had accomplished more than anyone else, so how is it possible that he was the most modest person on the face of the earth? One might think that a person can maintain an attitude of modesty if one focuses on one’s failures or unfulfilled potential. The etymology of the word humble is from the Latin word “humus,” which means earth. So a person with humility considers himself to be on a low, almost earth-like level.

But, clearly, Moses couldn't beat himself up for not accomplishing more in his life. So how did he maintain his modesty? Perhaps more importantly, how are we to incorporate this crucial character trait into our own lives?

In defending Moses to the implied criticism of his sister, God says; “Mouth to mouth I speak to him, in a vision and not in riddles, and he gazes at the image of Hashem…” (12:8).

The word “gazes” is a translation of the Hebrew word “yabit.” Throughout the Torah we find several different words for seeing or looking. Rashi in his commentary to Genesis 15:5 says that when the Torah uses this word it means to look downward (from up above).

Yet the word “yabit” in this context is difficult to understand; how can Hashem defend Moses by saying that Moses looked down from up high “at the image of Hashem”? What does that even mean?

Hashem was telling Miriam something remarkable about Moses – and exactly what made him so special. Even though Moses had the most incredible relationship with God, more than any human has ever had or will have, and this really did place him on a very high level, when he looked down at everyone else he saw the image of God within them.

Moses recognized a universal truth. Being intimately connected with the Almighty, he knew that everyone is created by the Almighty for a specific purpose and that makes them unique. Therefore, each person has qualities that are uniquely their own and that makes them special. In this sense he was no better than anyone else. Everyone is equally important.

Moses was able to sense the unique quality of each individual, and understand that each person had something that he did not have; something that he could learn from him or her. This is how he maintained his modesty.

We too must look at others to search and understand what we can learn from them. As our sages teach in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of our Fathers” (4:1); “Who is a wise man? The one who learns from all men.” The only possible way to accomplish that is to focus on the fact that each person can teach us something. When we do that, and internalize all that we can learn from others, we will never value ourselves above anyone else. We are, after all, students of theirs. This is the key to remaining modest.

Every segment of the population must internalize the fact that they can learn something from everyone else. No one has the monopoly on the perfect perspective or the solely “right” opinion. We need each other for a lot of reasons, but perhaps none more than to learn from one another to educate ourselves and adjust our own myopic perspective on the world.

Torah Portion of the Week

Beha'alosecha, Numbers 8:1 - 12:16

Aharon is commanded in the lighting of the Menorah, the Levites purify themselves for service in the Tabernacle (they trained from age 25-30 and served from age 30-50). The first Pesach is celebrated since leaving Egypt. The Almighty instructs the Jewish people to journey into the desert whenever the ever-present cloud lifts from above the Tabernacle and to camp where it rests. Moses is instructed to make two silver trumpets to be sounded before battle or to proclaim a yom tov (a holiday).

The people journey to the wilderness of Paran, during which time they rebelled twice against the Almighty's leadership. The second time they complain about the boring taste of the maneh and the lack of meat in the desert. The Almighty sends a massive quantity of quail and those who rebelled died.

Moses asks his father-in-law, Yitro (Jethro) to travel with them in the desert, but Yitro returns to Midian.

Miriam, Moses' sister, speaks lashon hora (defaming words) about Moses. She is struck with tzora'as (the mystical skin disease which indicated that a person spoke improperly about another person) and is exiled from the camp for one week.

Candle Lighting Times

Never be haughty to the humble, never be humble to the haughty.
Mark Twain

In celebration of Brian and Rachel’s wedding
Mazel Tov and much happiness.

Love Daniel, Brittany, and Poppy


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