Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Humility: The Key to Torah

The uniqueness of Moshe Rabbeinu's vision is described, "Peh el peh adaber bo u'mareh v'lo b'chidos," (Bamidbar 12:8) ("Mouth to mouth I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles"), while in reference to other prophets we are told, "Bamarra eilav esvada bachalom adaber bo," (12:6) ("See only in reflections or in dreams").

Rav Chaim Volozhin (Ruach Chaim 1:1) links this distinction to Moshe's unique humility, "V'haish Moshe anav m'od mikol adam" - "And the man Moshe was more modest than any other person," (Bamidbar 12:3). This quality of self-negation enabled him to see directly and clearly (Yevamos 49b), to the point that Hashem spoke through him ("bo" Bamidbar 12:8), not just to him.

Moshe's siblings mistakenly thought that other prophets were also on this level ("gam banu 12:2) but in reality they only communicated with Hashem via mirrors, dreams and riddles. Their sense of self, however small, distorted the picture that they saw through the lens of their personal bias. Only Moshe, who had absolutely no sense of self, and was the uniquely humble servant of Hashem, saw clearly and directly in a wakened state.

Therefore, only Moshe could receive the Torah and say this is what Hashem commanded. All other prophets merely approximated, i.e. "So said Hashem," (Rashi 30:2). Only Moshe received the Torah at Sinai in its entirety. Thereafter the Torah was given to Yehoshua, elders, prophets, and sages but no recipient captured it in its entirety (Avos 1:1).

Moshe's humility exceeded that of Avraham (Chulin 89a). Avraham said, "v'anochi affar v'eiffer" -"and I am dust and ash" (Braishis 18:27), whereas Moshe said "I am nothing" (see Shmos 16:8 - "v'nachnu ma" - "who are we", referring to himself and Aharon).

When Hashem called, "Avraham, Avraham" (Braishis 2:11), in the Torah a line separates between the two words. The call "Moshe Moshe" (Shmos 3:4) has no such separation (Shmos Rabba 2:6). The line signifies a gap between the soul and the reality which the body creates. Only Moshe, who negated his body, i.e. his sense of self, completely, reached his full potential, so that the Divine presence would speak, as it were, through his throat.

This lofty description of the greatest prophet carries an important lesson for all people in all times. Our understanding of Torah is affected by who we are. In many cases, a personal agenda, explicit or implicit, leads to a distorted interpretation of Torah laws and values. Even a sincere effort to comprehend and apply halachah is affected by every person's tendency to see matters through his own "glasses".

It is nearly impossible to totally remove personal bias in halachic analysis and decision. Yet this is the challenge imposed upon all recipients of Toras Moshe. If we cannot be "mikabel" completely, we must attempt to adhere to the mesorah described in the first mishna of Pirkei Avos.

It is noteworthy that the three things recorded in that mishna in Avos - be deliberate in judgement, develop many disciples, and make a fence for the Torah - relate to the theme of humility which is the very essence of mesorah. An arrogant person makes snap judgements, without consultation, and "pushes the envelope" to the limit. A humble person, cognizant of human frailty, is more deliberate, consults with peers and students, and allows for a margin of error.

Unfortunately, this conservative approach is attacked by promoters of various agendas, often with inappropriate self-assuredness. Even sincere Torah Jews sometimes fail to appreciate the mishna's long view, and criticize rabbonim who resist the zeitgeist.

Ironically, in Rav Chaim's words, the more a person negates himself, the greater he becomes. Only Moshe Rabbeinu, the humblest of all men, reached his full potential. Remarkably, the phrase "be all that you can be" is associated with military service, which demands selflessness and even self-sacrifice for a noble goal.

In a further irony, the more popular restatement of this theme has a chasidic source. The Rebbe Reb Zyshe told his followers that he did not fear that he would be asked by the heavenly court, "Why weren't you Moshe Rabbeinu, R. Akiva, Rav Ashi, the Rambam, or the Ba'al Shem Tov". Only one question worried him: "Reb Zyshe, why weren't you Reb Zyshe?"

Self-centered modern society promotes self-fulfillment, gratification of one's physical and psychological needs and wants, and self-actualization, the maximum fulfillment of one's potential.

The Torah teaches that these two goals are contradictory. Moshe reached the highest level of self-actualization precisely because he humbly negated his sense of self, and lived as an absolute servant of his Master. May all of us learn from his example and attempt to understand the Torah without a personal agenda. Paradoxically, by this self-negation we will be enabled to narrow the line between who we can be and who we are.

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