Dvar Torah given at Kehilat Hadar June 2, 2018
הָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה עָנָ֣ו מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃
Now Moses was very humble,
more so than any other person on the face of the earth.
This verse from our parashah has always bothered me for a number of reasons:
- Why tell us this in context is when Moses’s siblings are gossiping about his Kushite wife? Moshe meets with heads of state and has face-to-face conversations with God. The theme of humility doesn’t really fit in here.
- The phrasing, most humble man on the face of the earth is particularly jarring. Even saying “very humble” feels at cross purposes with the idea of humility.
- If you believe that Moshe wrote down the Torah this feels even more incongruous. If Moses was actually humble, would he really have written this verse about himself?
- Is this even true? Was there no other person on the planet as humble as Moses? How would anyone know?
I could go on, but you get the idea. This verse raises lots of questions about Moses, and about humility.
It brings to mind the the following line from Pirkei Avot (4:4):
בי לויטס איש יבנה אומר, מאד מאד הוי שפל רוח, שתקות אנוש רמה.
Rabbi Levitas, a man of Yavneh, would say: Be very, very humble in spirit,
for the hope of mortal man is with the worms.
This isn’t very hopeful, though it is something that is probably worth reminding people of from time to time. Again we’ve got that exaggerated “מאד מאד שפל רוח” “very, very low in spirit” or humble.
Humility- ענוה is an odd virtue. In the mussar movement, the area of Jewish thought concerned in particular with ethical conduct, generally middot or character traits are to be balanced.
Maimonides in Hilkhot Deot (2:2) writes that people should stick to the middle path between virtues. That too much of any virtue is not a good thing. However, humility is an exception. (Deot 2:3). According to Maimonides, quoting both our parshah and Pirkei Avot, it is appropriate to be exceedingly humble. One actually can’t go too far in being humble or low spirited.
But is this correct? It calls into memory the following story:
It’s the high holidays and the synagogue is packed, with the air of awe that the services bring. Overcome by the emotion of it all, the Rabbi drops to her knees, looks up and says “Oh Lord! Without you I am nothing!” Seeing this, the cantor too is overwhelmed by emotion and also drops to her knees and says “Oh Lord! Without you I am nothing!”. Ms Schwartz in the front row is completely overtaken by the emotion and so she too drops to her knees and says “Oh Lord! Without you I am nothing!” To which the Cantor elbows the Rabbi in the ribs and whispers “Ehh…look who thinks she’s nothing!”
We laugh, but I, for one, can relate to the inclination towards self-abnegation. Many of us are experts on how small we are, how we could have done better, how we aren’t worthy of the extent of praise that comes our way. However, according to Rav Kook, this is not the kind of humility that is called for:
כל זמן שהענוה מביאה עצבון- היא פסולה,
וכשהיא כשרה, מוסיפה היא שמחה, גבורה וכבוד פנימי.
When humility engenders sadness it is compromised;
when it is genuine, it contributes to joy, courage, and inner dignity.
Though, at first brush it may seem like Rav Kook is contradicting Maimonides, I think they should be read as complementary. Being exceedingly humble is essential, but we aren’t talking about the detrimental, self-effacing humility. That type of humility is פסול- compromised.
The kosher type of humility stems from having enough self confidence that we need not be worried about what others think while knowing that it’s not all about us,.
Rabbi David Jaffe has a helpful articulation of this:
“The fact that the Torah calls Moses the “most humble man on earth” tips us off that humility need not imply taking a back seat and letting others lead. Moses [while still qualifying as humble] confronted Pharaoh, he led the Israelites out of slavery and challenged both God and the people at moments of crisis during their sojourn in the desert.”
So too with us. We can, we should, still strive to our equivalent of confronting pharaoh or freeing slaves. But we should do so with ענוה. We can call for justice, even effect change in our world without it being all about us.
And on the other side of the coin, being self deprecating is paralyzing, it’s the kind of humility that Rav Kook called פסול. We can’t use humility to get us out of doing what needs to be done.
Rabbi Levitas may be right, we will all, eventually, end up with the worms. But that doesn’t absolve us from having an impact in the meantime.
May we all, like Moshe, find our right balance with respect to ענוית. May we be wise enough to know the difference between humility and self deprecation, and may we have the confidence to lead when we are needed, while remaining focused on the cause and not on ourselves.