In this week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, the last letter of the first word, an alef, is written smaller than the rest of the letters in the word.
Simcha Bunem of Przysucha provides one interpretation of this phenomenon. He taught that the alef was written smaller because it was in fact a symbol of Moses’ exceedingly humble spirit. He explained that even though Moses attained the highest level of connection with God — that of a prophet — he never became impressed with himself because of it.
When Moses is called by God to return to Egypt to lead the Jewish people to freedom, his first response is a question: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” When God tells him, “I will be with you,” Moses is unsatisfied and asks for proof. After God tells him exactly what to say to the Israelites, Moses still has his doubts. “What if they do not believe me? What if they do not listen to me?” Even after God shows him signs and gives him a staff with which to perform magical wonders, Moses continues to hesitate. “I have never been a man of words,” he says, hoping that God will choose someone else to lead the Israelites to freedom. No such luck. Moses is not freed from his responsibility.
Commentators throughout the ages have wondered about Moses’ reaction and response to God. Was he truly being humble?
Rabbi Daniel Silver suggests that Moses’ response to God was very typical of Middle Eastern behavior at the time. It was a matter of good manners to plead that you were unworthy of taking on major responsibilities. To say “I am not capable” or “I do not possess the right talents” or “let others more able than I do the job” was considered not only correct behavior but also a demonstration of strength of character. According to Rabbi Silver, Moses demonstrated his fitness for leadership through his hesitation to accept God’s command. His humility was proof that he was truly the right person for the job.
Obviously one does not have to be Moses in order to doubt one’s capabilities. We hesitate to accept responsibilities far less overwhelming than the liberation of an enslaved people. We too are reluctant to take on tasks for which we feel unqualified, often asking to be relieved of such obligations. We do so for a variety of reasons, perhaps even including the chance for the job to be offered to someone more worthy than we are. But does this make us as humble as Moses?
Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote, “There is no way one can claim to be humble; one can only be humble.” We cannot describe ourselves as being humble — it is our actions that show our humility.
In Hebrew, the word for humility is anava. It is considered to be the antidote to pride. For centuries our sages and teachers have sought ways to keep us from becoming in the words of one commentator, “people who lie back on our beds, sigh, and say in our heart, ‘How great I am.’ ” Pride is seen as a great threat to Jewish character; one which the Bible deems punishable by God. In Psalms we read that “God says, ‘I cannot endure the haughty and proud person,’” and in Proverbs that “God abominates haughty people.”
It is clear that humility is something held in high esteem by our tradition. We are not to think too highly of ourselves or of our accomplishments. But we are also not supposed to exaggerate our smallness. For as a Yiddish folk saying reminds us, “If you bend down too much, people walk on your head.”
We must find a compromise between the extremes of arrogance and meekness. We must be honest about our capabilities and limitations and not feign humility in order to take advantage of the situation. But we also must be careful not to project such a low opinion of ourselves that people walk all over us.
As it is said in the book of Micah, “walk humbly with your God.” The Midrash tells us to read it this way: “Walk humbly, and your God will be with you.”
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)