What Does Humility Really Mean?
The Bible’s Definition Of Humility
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
What do you picture when you think of someone who's humble? Is it someone who stands up to bullies and hoodlums? Someone who faces off against evil tyrants? Someone who stands his moral ground - even, seemingly, against God Himself? Probably not. Someone like that is brave, heroic, and full of integrity. But humble? That's not the word I would use...
And yet, the Torah tells us that Moses was more humble than anyone else on Earth. Moses, who stood up to Egyptian taskmasters, who took on Pharaoh, who argued with God to save the Israelite people. How exactly is that humble?
Join Rabbi Fohrman as he tries to resolve this seeming contradiction by examining a story that seems to test Moses' humility. A deeper understanding of this story may just lead us to a deeper understanding of humility – and the true greatness of Moses.
So, in this week’s parsha, we get a clue to understanding two abiding mysteries about Moses. Each of these mysteries concerns a way in which Moses stands apart, seemingly, from all other human beings.
How Was Moses Both a Great and Humble Man?Mystery number one: Moses experiences the revelation of God at Sinai in a way that no one else did, or, seemingly, even could. He is atop the mountain upon which the Master of the Universe descends – while all others were warned that even touching the mountain would be fatal. Apparently, the human body was not made to withstand direct contact with the Master of the Universe. And yet, Moses, unique among men, does survive the Sinai Experience. Why? What was different about him?
Now, another way Moses stands apart from others, according to the Torah, concerns a character trait of his – a trait he possesses, according to the text, in the extreme. The Torah tells us that Moshe was very humble. Not only very humble, but uniquely so; the most humble man to walk the face of the earth. So here we come to our second mystery: We tend to associate humility with being meek or deferential; respectful, submissive, self-effacing. These, at least, are the synonyms your average dictionary gives for ‘humble’. But none of those seem to describe Moses.
For example, Moses confronts many strong personalities in his lifetime – and he did anything but simply melt away from before them. He stood up in the face of aggression time after time. Indeed, one could make the case that Moshe’s entire trajectory of leadership, over the course of his life, is defined by his willingness to challenge the powerful – in increasing increments.
First he challenges ordinary individuals with the upper hand – the Egyptian taskmaster menacing a Hebrew slave. Then he challenges a whole group of people – those Midianite shepherds harassing the daughters of Yitro. Then, he challenges Pharaoh – not just a king, but ruler of the mightiest civilization the world had ever known. And finally, most astoundingly, Moses takes this capacity and plays it to the hilt, challenging the Master of the Universe Himself. Yes: In the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode, God stands ready to destroy the entire people and to start over with Moses. But Moses will have none of it. With what can only be described as icy determination, he provides God with a choice:
אָ֣נָּ֗א חָטָ֞א הָעָ֤ם הַזֶּה֙ חֲטָאָ֣ה גְדֹלָ֔ה וַיַּֽעֲשׂ֥וּ לָהֶ֖ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י זָהָֽב׃ וְעַתָּ֖ה אִם־תִּשָּׂ֣א חַטָּאתָ֑ם וְאִם־אַ֕יִן מְחֵ֣נִי נָ֔א מִֽסִּפְרְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתָֽבְתָּ
These people – Moses says – have committed a terrible sin. They have worshiped a Golden Calf. And now, if you will bear their sin [and forgive them – fine]. But if not, [don’t think you can start over with me. I’m not going along with that. If you fail to forgive them,] just erase me from the Book you have written.
Look at that… He stands toe to toe against God
That’s some humble guy.
Redefining What Humility Means in the BibleSo, to resolve these issues, I’d like to propose that maybe the two things that make Moshe utterly unique… maybe they are not two separate things at all; but on some level, maybe they are two facets of the same thing. That is: We said earlier that the Torah considers Moshe unique in his ability to receive prophecy; he has this uncanny ability to withstand sustained, direct contact with the Divine. And… also, according to the Torah, he is the most humble man who ever walked the earth.
So… maybe it wasn’t a coincidence that Moses just happened to exhibit these two qualities in extreme form. Maybe these two qualities are really, somehow, two facets of the same thing. And maybe, once we see that, our questions about each of these things will kind of resolve themselves.
To see how that might be so, I want to look with you at the text of this week’s Parsha. Because it just so happens that these two unique things about Moses – they both show up in a single, particular episode in this week’s parashah. Let me show you what I mean.
Moses: The Bible's Example of the Most Humble Man on EarthTowards the end of Beha’alotecha, Miriam and Aaron speak about their brother, Moses, seemingly behind his back. They complain that he seems to act differently than other prophets. הֲרַ֤ק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה֙ דִּבֶּ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה – Did God speak only with Moses, they say, הֲלֹ֖א גַּם־בָּ֣נוּ דִבֵּ֑ר וַיִּשְׁמַ֖ע יְהוָֽה – Did God not speak with us as well? And God hears this.
Now, right after this, the text gets to that point about Moses humility. It tells us, as an aside to the reader, that וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה ענו [עָנָ֣יו] מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה, this man Moses, he was more humble than any other man on the face of the earth. So there’s the humility piece we were talking about, and then, getting back to our story, God goes and calls to Miriam and Aaron, and rebukes them for their words. And in the process of doing so, the text gets to that second point we were talking about: Moses’ uniqueness among prophets.
If I speak to other prophets, God tells them, it is through a vision or a dream. There is an inherent unclarity, a fuzziness in the communication. לֹא־כֵ֖ן עַבְדִּ֣י מֹשֶׁ֑ה בְּכָל־בֵּיתִ֖י נֶאֱמָ֥ן הֽוּא׃ פֶּ֣ה אֶל־פֶּ֞ה אֲדַבֶּר־בּ֗וֹ וּמַרְאֶה֙ וְלֹ֣א בְחִידֹ֔ת, it is not that way, though, with my servant Moses. In all of my house, he is trusted. Face to face will I speak with him; in a [clear vision], and not with riddles…
Now, let’s analyze that story a little bit, and I think we’ll be able to see why these two aspects of Moses’ character might be connected. Tell me: What was the purpose of that little aside, in the middle of the story we just read, about Moses being the most humble man to walk the earth. Why, exactly, did the Torah feel compelled to tell us this about Moses, right here and right now?
Understanding the Humility of MosesThe way I always read the story, I had assumed the Torah was explaining to the reader why Moses didn’t speak up for himself when Aaron and Miriam were speaking disparagingly about him. He remained silent because he was humble. He didn’t feel it was his place to speak up – and therefore he didn’t say anything in his own defense. So, instead, God ended up coming to Moses’ defense, because Moses wouldn’t do it himself.
That kind of seems like what’s going on, right? But here’s the problem with that interpretation: Right after Miriam and Moses speak disparagingly about Moses, the text adds a seemingly superfluous couple of words – the verse says: Vayishma HaShem, and God heard [what they said].
Now, why would it say that? God of course sees and hears everything. It doesn’t seem necessary for the text to tell us that God overheard what Miriam and Aaron were saying. Unless…. Unless perhaps the text was telling us something else by way of implication. That is: God heard, but someone else didn’t hear. And who would that someone else have to be? It would have to be Moses.
In other words, Moses was unaware of what his sister and brother were saying about him. And now that I mention that possibility, it kind of seems likely that this was the case, that Moses wouldn’t have heard, right? Because, after all, Miriam and Aaron were in all probability speaking behind Moses’ back. They were whispering about Moses to themselves; the whole point is that that they were speaking secretly.
So if Moshe was really unaware of what they were saying, let’s revisit that question I asked you about the aside: Why does the Torah, smack in the middle of this episode, feel compelled to tell us, that Moses was so surpassingly humble? It can’t be to explain to us why Moses didn’t rise in his own defense. He didn’t rise in his own defense because he didn’t hear what his siblings were saying about him!
What Is the Bible Saying About Humility?So here, then, is an alternative explanation: Maybe the reason the Torah mentions Moses humility at this point wasn’t to explain the preceding event – that is, why Moses didn’t stand up for himself in the face of criticism from his siblings. Maybe it was instead to explain the following event – that is, God’s declaration to Aaron and to Miriam that Moses’ kind of prophecy was unique.
In other words, the text is giving you insight into the engine that drove that uniqueness: Why was it that Moses had this capacity to communicate directly with God in a way that was clear and unencumbered? What could he survive a direct and unfettered encounter with God when other prophets couldn’t? What was so different about Moses?
It was, the text is telling us, the quality of humility. Moses was surpassingly humble. The two things that Moses possessed in extreme – an ability to prophesy, and humility – these aren’t really two things; they are, in fact, just two sides of the same coin.
But now the question is: Why should it be that way? Why is it that one’s level of prophecy, one’s ability to withstand a direct encounter with God, is influenced so profoundly by one’s humility, of all things?
How Does the Bible Define the Characteristics of Humility?Well, it turns out that, in the verses that follow, the Torah might well be trying to explain this very thing to us. Because listen to how, just a couple verses later, God talks to Miriam and Aaron about Moses’ unique ability to prophesy is so different. The Almighty doesn’t just say, as a blind fact, that Moses is different, He says something about where that special quality comes from. That explanation takes the form of an unusual descriptor that God attaches to Moses. Lo chen avdi Moshe, it is not so with Moses, My servant; בְּכָל־בֵּיתִ֖י נֶאֱמָ֥ן, in all of My house, he is trusted.
A faithful servant. Could being a ‘faithful servant’ be the quality needed to experience the ultimate depths of prophecy? And... what does it mean, anyway, to be a ‘faithful servant’?
It may be a little abstract to wrap your mind around things like prophecy, direct communication with the Almighty, and ‘being a servant of God’ – but just by way of analogy, imagine an earthly ruler and his servant. At the risk of seeming a bit whimsical, I’ll refer you to a contemporary fictionalized account of a ruler and his servant – the relationship between the President and his valet, as characterized on the television series, "The West Wing."
President Bartlett is a dominating figure. Lots of folks with big resumes and even bigger egos are attracted to his orbit. But the one person with the most direct access to him – the one person on his staff who quite literally, is trusted in the president’s ‘whole house’, who can enter the presidential bedroom and wake Bartlett up from a nap – is not any of these guys. It’s this kid, Charlie. Charlie has no resume of note. He’s an orphan. He has no guile. For Charlie, working in the White House wasn’t a resume builder. It wasn’t about him. He was there… to serve, faithfully. And that gave him a kind of proximity to the president that no one else has.
Bottom line: When you are around ultimate power – whether it is the most powerful man on earth, a US President, or whether it is the King of Kings in Heaven – your own ego can work against you. It can impede your level of access. Sure, a modest share of ego is fine for regular folks. Everyone wants to get ahead in life, right? And that is fine for doctors and carpenters and lawyers and bus-drivers. But that same, basic sense of ego is, somehow, dangerous around God.
The Bible's Message on HumilityStanding in the presence of the Master of the Universe is too overwhelming an experience to survive if there is any part of you that thinks this is about you. It is survivable only if you are entirely there to serve – only if your ‘you’, your sense of ego, is somehow entirely transparent. Moses was there ONLY for God, he was ENTIRELY humble and was therefore able to knock on God’s door and enter His presence.
That, really, is the soul of humility: Understanding, at the end of the day, that whoever you are, and whatever you achieve, it isn’t really about you. The significance of the work that you do… isn’t that people congratulate you for doing it. Isn’t that it makes you famous or brings you glory. The service is an end in and of itself, not a means to your own aggrandizement, or even fulfillment. You are ‘other-directed’, not ‘self-directed’.
Which helps us understand, I think, what humility is and what it isn’t.
What the Bible Teaches Us About HumilityHumility doesn’t mean I’m a pushover. It doesn’t mean I can’t stand up to power. Moses stood up to the most powerful person on the planet – and to the Master of the Universe, to boot! No, humility just means I’m not in this for me, I’ve here to serve.
If anything, humility makes me more powerful because, think about it, people who are motivated by ego seem small in the eyes of others; when it is crystal clear that you’re not in this for yourself or your own elevation, that’s when you really have standing. That’s when you start to matter.
The Power of Humility in the BibleMoshe, ironically, is at his most powerful, when? When he is able to say no to God’s offer to destroy the Jewish People and start over with him. He does so by leveraging, of all things, his lack of notoriety, his willingness to be anonymous: Macheini na misifrecha asher katavta, he says – if you won’t forgive the people, then wipe me out of this book you’ve written. I don’t need the fame and recognition. I’ll be Mr. Anonymous forever.
So humility doesn’t mean being a pushover… and it also doesn’t mean I don’t recognize my talents or the value of my contributions to the world. In some ways, the very opposite is true.
I so recognize the value of my contributions, and my own unique ability to make them – that I will not trivialize those contributions by thinking that their primary purpose is something as small as the aggrandizement of little ol’ me. No. What I bring to the world is much bigger than that. Much more important than that. And because of that, it isn’t really about me. I am really just there to serve. Faithfully.