Parshas Beha’aloscha: Greatness in Smallness

This week (in chutz la’Aretz), we read the sedra of Beha’aloscha.  Many fascinating and important details and events are recorded in the Torah text for us, from the lighting of the menorah, to preparations for travel to Eretz Yisrael, to the laws of Pesach Sheni, the construction of the chatzotzros (the silver trumpets), Moshe’s invitation to Yisro to join them on their historic journey… to the beginning of the end when the people complain, to Moshe’s despair over the quarrelsome nation, to the shocking prophecy of Eldad and Meidad… to Miriam’s about Moshe.  It is a sedra filled with meaning, hope, despair, intrigue, passion, leadership, sin and Divine retribution.

The topic of Miriam’s lashon harah about Moshe, spoken to Aharon, appears in the final perek of  Beha’aloscha.  וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽחand Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he took, for he took a Cushite woman; They said, “Has Hashem spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” And Hashem heard; וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹדמִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַלפְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, and the man Moshe was more humble than any man upon the face of the earth (Bamidbar 12:1-3).

What was Moshe’s reaction when faced with defamation and suspicion, lashon harah and possible motzi shem rah?  Nothing.  He was not angry, he did not take umbrage, there was no insult, no revenge and no hurt feelings.  The Torah simply tells us that the man Moshe was more humble than any to walk the face of the earth.  While most mortals would naturally feel hurt when slander is spoken about them, ‘not so My servant Moshe, in all My house he is the most faithful’ (12:7).  Moshe rose above petty quarrels and strife to gain the most honorable title known to man: עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה, My servant, Moshe (see also Devarim 34:5 – וַיָּ֨מָת שָׁ֜ם משֶׁ֧ה עֶֽבֶד־ה).

How can this humility be defined and explained?  How do we understand that it is one of the highest accolades accorded to our greatest leader?

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l writes, “The idea that a leader’s highest virtue is humility must have seemed absurd, almost self-contradictory, in the ancient world.  Leaders were proud, magnificent, distinguished by their dress, appearance, and regal manner.  They built temples in their own honour.  They had triumphant inscriptions engraved for posterity.  Their role was not to serve, but to be served.  Everyone else was expected to be humble, not they.  Humility and majesty could not coexist.

“In Judaism, however, this entire configuration was overturned.  Leaders were to serve, not to be served.  Moshe’s highest accolade was to be called a servant of G-d.  Only one other person, Yehoshua, his successor, earns this title in Tanach” (Essays on Ethics, p.229).

Fascinatingly, R’ Sacks points out that this disparity can be seen in the ancient symbols of ancient rulers and religions. “The architectural symbolism of the two great empires of the ancient world, the Mesopotamian ziggurat (Tower of Babel) and the pyramids of Egypt, visually represented a hierarchical society, broad at the base, narrow at the top.  The Jewish symbol, the menorah (we must note that perhaps, not coincidentally, the menorah is the first topic in this week’s sedra), was the opposite, broad at the top, narrow at the base, as if to say that in Judaism, the leader serves the people, not vice versa.  Moshe’s first response to G-d’s call at the burning bush was one of humility… It was precisely this humility that qualified him to lead… (Hence,) Moshe was undisturbed by the complaint of his own brother and sister, praying to G-d on Miriam’s behalf when she was punished with tzara’at

“We now understand what humility is.  It is not self-abasement… Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.  True humility means silencing the “I”.  For genuinely humble people, like Moshe, it is G-d and others that matter, not me.  As it was once said of a great religious leader, ‘He was a man who took G-d so seriously that he didn’t have to take himself seriously at all!’

“…Humility is also the greatest single source of strength, for if we do not think about the “I”, we cannot be injured by those who criticise or demean us.  They are shooting at a target that no longer exists… Those who have humility are open to things greater than themselves while those who lack it are not.  That is why those who lack it make you feel small, while those who have it make you feel enlarged.  Their humility inspires greatness in others” (Essays on Ethics, p.229-231).

Living a life of humility ultimately affects every aspect of one’s existence, from bein adam la’Makom, to bein adam la’chavairo, and extends especially to bein adam la’atzmo.

About his two-bedroom, sparsely furnished, barest-of-necessities apartment, located at Rechov Chazon Ish 5 in Bnei Brak, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman zt’l remarked, “To us it is beautiful, especially compared to the house we lived in in Brisk, which had no indoor plumbing.  It is also nicer than the small shack I slept in in Montreux, when I was teaching in the yeshiva there, and it is definitely a lot better than the barracks of the Schonburg work camp!  For my wife and me, it really is a beautiful home.  Its furnishings more than serve our purpose and are superior to the furnishings we both grew up with.”  Furthermore, R’ Aharon Leib noted although the home was simple and barely furnished, all the furnishings inside were purchased with kosher money.  There was not even the slightest question of gezel.  “That, to me,” he said, “is a beautiful home.”R’ Aharon Leib told a grandson several times that he would be grateful to have as nice a house in Gan Eden as the one on Rechov Chazon Ish 5, as he is afraid he might end up with something worse, or that he won’t make it into Gan Eden at all!  (Reb Aharon Leib, Artscroll, p.238).

One who lives a life of true anivus is happy with his portion from G-d (Avos 4:1), happy with those around him (Lev.19:17-18), and content with all that he has (Ex.20:14).  He does not seek greatness or grandeur for himself, for before Hashem, we are all equal.  And so, the most humble man to ever live was also the greatest to ever live.  And the Torah he brought us, and taught us, is the blueprint for how we must all strive to live our lives, emulating the great model of Moshe Rabbeinu.

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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