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Moses, Humility and Leadership

05/29/2013 09:05:41 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

In the Torah reading cycle of the synagogue we are now in the midst of B’midbar, the book of Numbers, and among the extraordinary things written there is one line easily missed, yet worthy of serious consideration: “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth…” (Numbers 12:3)

We know a lot about Moses from his actions – redeemer of Israel, legislator, performer of miracles and wonders, but the Torah does not describe his character, except in this one place. It doesn’t say, for example, he was exceptionally brave, wise, strong, righteous, a good parent, husband, etc. The Torah does describe Moses as “the greatest prophet that ever lived” (Deuteronomy 34:10) but that is not a statement about his character. No, the only thing the Torah tells us about Moses’ character is that he was the humblest man on earth!

One can guess from this that the Torah sees humility as a high value, and as it turns out, Moses is humble all around. For example, when Moses first learns of his mission at “the burning bush”, he responds by saying, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11).  And when the Israelites rebel against Moses, what does he do? More than once he “falls on his face” before them. He’s a servant as much as a leader. He grows into his leadership role and his power over time. In other words, he earns his place before the Israelites.

This is an important lesson for any aspiring leader; real leadership, real authority is not given or bestowed upon someone; it is earned.  I think President Obama is learning this the hard way and, in general, humility is a value lost in politics and in American society. Can you imagine a candidate running for office with a platform that includes the adjective “humility”?

But wouldn’t that be refreshing and maybe even redeeming? Where would our country be now if we had been more humble in our assessment of — you name it:  Iraq (remember, “mission accomplished”), Afghanistan, a host of environmental issues, etc.

Humility engenders listening to others, being open to diverse views and opinions, and questioning our own sense of what is right. Arrogance moves in the opposite direction. The arrogant mind is closed to other views and sure of one’s own position. In the poem, “The Place Where We Are Right,” Yehuda Amichai, the late, great Israeli poet, expresses beautifully what we lose in our “rightness” and what we gain through humility:

“The Place Where We Are Right”

 From the place where we are right
flowers will never grow
in the spring.
The place where we are right
is hard and trampled
like a yard.
But doubts and loves
dig up the world
like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
where the ruined
house once stood.

In the place where we are right, flowers won’t grow, even in spring, and the ground is hard and trampled. Only where there is doubt, humility, an openness to the other, a willingness to listen, can there be real growth and true love.

humilityHumility is not a great value in our culture or our country, and we are all suffering, at least in part, because of that. But Moses, the Torah goes out of its way to tell us, was the humblest man on earth. How did he get that way?

The renowned Israeli scientist and Jewish thinker, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, z”l, looks to the Talmud for a clue. The Talmud teaches that while all the other prophets experienced God through a “smoky lens”, Moses saw God through a “clear lens”.  How does this answer our question? With great insight and true clarity comes humility; the more we know the more we realize what we don’t know.

Science, which can define arrogance, does not necessarily negate God; Albert Einstein was a theist, as is Stephen Hawking. The more Moses knew, the more profound was his awareness of the distance between human knowledge and Divinity. As Rashi, the great medieval rabbi, wrote, “All the people looked through a murky glass and thought they saw; our master looked through a clear glass – and (even then) knew that he had not truly seen the face of Divinity” (Jerusalem Report, “the People & the Book”, June, 1994 & Talmud, Yevamot, 49b).  We can stand at the shores of the sea and look with awe and wonder at the waves as they come crashing into the shore, but we can never fully enter the water, comprehend its power, grace, or beauty.

Moses, according to the Torah, was the humblest man on earth. How do we rate on the humbleness scale? What grows on the ground where we stand?

Mon, August 10 2020 20 Av 5780