“And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3)
A close look at this unusual editorial comment by the Torah can yield important lessons about Moshe Rabbeinu as well as the midda of anava (humility). What does the Torah mean that Moshe was more humble than anyone else? Did Moshe Rabbeinu have the lowest self-esteem in recorded history? Did he view himself as the least worthy individual in the world when in fact he was destined for greatness? How could someone so delusional grow to be so successful?
The answer, of course, is that anava does not demand that we think of ourselves as a gornisht, a nothing. It is crucial that we be aware of our strengths and abilities in order to fulfill our mission in life, and to accomplish everything that we are capable of achieving. The first element of humility then, is the recognition that anything that we are born with—a sense of humor, intelligence, athletic ability, etc.—is a starting point; a gift from Hashem that serves as a baseline for what we should be expecting from ourselves. The true measure of a person is what he or she does with these talents. The awareness of the demands that our abilities impose upon us leaves no room for conceit.
If this is true, how can we refer to Moshe as the most humble of people? Has there never been anyone else who as fully recognized Hashem’s role in their success? Presumably, Moshe Rabbeinu—the greatest prophet who ever lived (as the subsequent pesukim explain)—had much about which to be arrogant. If our primary goal in life is to cling to Hashem, to know Him as best we can, then the only navi who spoke to Him “mouth to mouth” reached the greatest level of success ever. This can certainly be a challenge to your sense of humility. If LeBron James and I both spoke about our basketball abilities in the same modest terms, we would not be displaying similar levels of anava. Similarly (l’havdil), Moshe’s recognition that his innate abilities were not to be a source of pride and satisfaction, but of challenge and responsibility was a greater accomplishment than others who were able to do the same thing.
In fact, Moshe Rabbeinu had an advantage in his quest for humility. A second key to anava is the appreciation that no matter what we accomplish, in relation to the Almighty, we are truly nothing. Too often conceit is an unfortunate by-product of interactions with others to whom we can (misguidedly) feel superior. The remedy for this is taught by the passuk in Tehillim (16:8) that the Rama chose as the opening for his classic commentary on the Shulchan Aruch—Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid, Hashem is constantly present before me. The awareness of man’s inherent lowliness in the face of God’s perfection is enough to humble even those who struggle with humility. The problem that most of us encounter is that this realm of God-consciousness is difficult to maintain. It is not surprising that the Moshe Rabbeinu who found himself in regular “face to face” contact with the Ribono Shel Olam was able to achieve an unparalleled degree of humility.
As we try to incorporate this crucial midda into our own characters, it is important to keep these lessons in mind. We must not confuse humility with low self-esteem. Note that when the Torah declares Moshe a champion of anava, it is not early in his career when he actually displayed the characteristics of self-doubt and insecurity. Rather it is only in Parshat Beha’aloscha, where Moshe is confronted with challenges from all sides, that he does not blame himself, his speech difficulties or his leadership skills, but is confident enough to realize that it is the people who have failed.
Working on our God-awareness can help us maintain a healthy self-image while fulfilling His mandate that we walk humbly before Him.
By Rabbi Donny Besser, Mashgiach Ruchani, Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School