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Moshe - The Humblest of Men

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

At the end of this week's parsha, Beha'alotcha, there is the famous episode of the harsh words spoken by Miriam to her brother Aharon regarding Moshe Rabeinu and his Kushite wife.

Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe regarding the Kushite woman he had married, for he had married a Kushite woman.  They said, "Has Hashem spoken only to Moshe? Hasn't He spoken to us too?" And Hashem heard.[1]

The vast majority of the commentators[2], based on earlier sources of Chazal, explain the nature of the criticism of Miriam as referring to the fact that Moshe had separated from his wife Zipporah.

Miriam and Aharon spoke: She spoke first. Therefore, the Torah mentions her first. How did she know that Moshe had separated from his wife? R. Natan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah when Moshe was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said, “Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.” From this, Miriam knew [about it] and told Aharon.[3]

On the other hand, due to the difficulty of finding direct evidence from the actual verses to support the above mentioned explanation, there are a few commentators[4] who went in the opposite direction and explained that the criticism was actually regarding the marriage of Moshe to a Kushite woman in addition to his wife Zipporah.

Nehama Leibowitz has a long chapter devoted to this dispute where she quotes as well the sharp criticism of Yosef Ibn Caspi, a medieval commentator, who rejected with pathos the explanations of Chazal and Rashi – a worthwhile read.

I would like to pay attention to the third verse in the chapter:

Now this man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.

What is the meaning of this verse in the narrative of the Lashon Hara of Miriam and Aharon? Most of the commentators[5] explain that the verse comes to clarify why Moshe did not respond to the words of his sister and brother. Because of his humility he refrained from responding to their claims, and Hashem "as if" comes to Moshe's defense. It's questionable though whether this is the plain meaning of the verse. The previous verse seems to imply that only Hashem heard the words of Miriam. The Abarbanel goes so far as to suggest that this verse is actually part of the Lashon Hara spoken by Miriam and Aharon and should be read as a rhetorical question! "And now is this man Moshe so humble? Is he the most humble of people on the face of the earth to necessitate him separating from his wife?"

I would like to suggest that this verse is the Torah's response in defense of Moshe's behavior.

As always we have to remember that when people of the stature of Miriam and Aharon, both prophets themselves, speak critically of Moshe we wonder what it is that bothered them. In light of the mutually exclusive explanations suggested before, we can nevertheless conclude that the issue was the unusual behavior of Moshe. Whether related to separating from or divorcing Zipporah or marrying another wife, Miriam is criticizing the out-of-the-ordinary behavior of Moshe. The Torah is a set book of laws, why is there a need for practices not within its framework? What is the incentive to behave beyond its borders? Is it not a dangerous precedent for others to behave differently?

To all this the Torah responds:  "Now this man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth."

Moshe's behavior is void of any egoistic incentives. His motives are as pure as can be as he is the most humble of all human beings.

Though it is beyond the scope of this shiur to explore the concept of humility fully, it seems clear that humility is not about self-belittling and lack of appreciation of one's worth. The most humble of men in the Torah is at the same time the greatest man to have lived. An interesting approach to humility can be suggested based on the words of Rabbi Shimon Shkop in his introduction to his magnum opus, Sha'arei Yosher:

The entire “I” of a coarse and lowly person is restricted only to his substance and body. Above him is someone who feels that his “I” is a synthesis of body and soul. And above him is someone who can include in his “I” all of his household and family. Someone who walks according to the way of the Torah, his “I” includes the whole Jewish people, since in truth every Jewish person is only like a limb of the body of the nation of Israel. And there are more levels in this of a person who is whole, who can connect his soul to feel that all of the world and worlds are his “I”, and he himself is only one small limb in all of creation. Then, his self-love helps him love all of the Jewish people and [even] all of creation.

In my opinion, this idea is hinted at in Hillel’s words, as he used to say, “If I am [not] for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?” It is fitting for each person to strive to be concerned for himself. But with this, he must also strive to understand that “I for myself, what am I?” If he constricts his “I” to a narrow domain, limited to what the eye can see [is him], then his “I” – what is it? Vanity and ignorable. But if his feelings are broader and include [all of] creation, that he is a great person and also like a small limb in this great body, then he is lofty and of great worth. In a great engine even the smallest screw is important if it even serves the smallest role in the engine. For the whole is made of parts, and no more than the sum of its parts.

Humility is a sense of smallness in the context of being part of something so much bigger than one's own self. It is a recognition that calls one to responsibility and grandeur in light of ones awareness of being an important part of something so big.

Moshe's behavior was never about himself. Being the humblest of men, Moshe's concern is about the sanctifying of Hashem in this world through Am Yisrael. That is what made Moshe the purest vessel to transmit the word of Hashem to Bnei Yisrael, and allow him to sometime exceed those boundaries. That is the criteria for exceptional behavior.

Shabbat Shalom.


[1] Bamidbar 12;1-2.

[2] Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Abarbanel,Hirsh and many others.

[3] Rashi Bamidbar ibid.

[4] Rashban, Ibn Caspi and others.

[5] Ramban, Da'at Ze'kanim, Ohr Hachayim and others.


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