Moses, the Most Humble of Men
© 2012 S.H. Parker

All Hebrew transcription and translations are from the Mechon-Mamre on-line chumash, unless otherwise noted.

Miriam and Aaron "spoke against Moses on account of the Cushite woman he had taken" (Bamidbar 12:1-2 -- my translation). Read, "they rebelled against Moses." It takes direct action by God, not an angel, to discipline them, to put them back in their place (an angel could deal with the entire nation of Egypt but direct Divine action is required for these two!). Moses did not speak up for himself because, as Bamidbar 12:3 tell us:

וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד--מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.

And, ever since, Moses has been known as "the most humble of men." ["Meek" just is not anywhere near correct.]

Actually, on later reflection, I realize that Moshe really isn't very good at dealing with conflict. And with all the rebellions and attempted usurpations recorded so faithfully in Torah, there was significant opportunity for him to develop some serious conflict resolution skills. But he never did.

Witness, for example, the classic rebellion at the scene at the sea. The people complain (right, "complain") "were there not graves enough in Egypt?" (Shmot 14:11; my translation). Moshe's response? "Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will work for you to-day" (14:13).

What does Moshe do in the face of rebels? He calls on God (talk about having connections!), he bucks the problem upstairs. (I have recently seen this cited as evidence for his humility.)

"Humble" must mean something very different in Torah than it means to us, very different indeed. Moshe is the man who to whom God speaks, face to face:

וְדִבֶּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, כַּאֲשֶׁר יְדַבֵּר אִישׁ אֶל-רֵעֵהו

"God spoke to Moshe face to face, just as a man speaks to his neighbor" (Devarim 33:11, my translation).

Moshe is the man who, not once but constantly, says "no" to God.

Moshe's life-long conversation with God begins at the burning bush ("the bush burned with fire and [but] the bush was not consumed," Shmot 3:2).

God instructs Moshe to remove his shoes, then introduces Her-/Himself (3:6):

  וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ, אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אֱלֹהֵי יִצְחָק, וֵאלֹהֵי יַעֲקֹב; וַיַּסְתֵּר מֹשֶׁה, פָּנָיו, כִּי יָרֵא, מֵהַבִּיט אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים Moreover He said: 'I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.' And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

This sort of preamble, a statement of credentials, is entirely typical of ancient near-eastern documents. It states why the speaker has the right to say or demand whatever it is that s/he will say or demand. (You should notice this kind of language precedes all the covenants God makes: with Abraham, with Yitzhak, with Jacob, with Moshe, with the people Israel -- the Ten Commandments begin in this way: "I am the LORD thy GOD who brought you out of the house of bondage" -- and many other formal declarations throughout Torah -- see Potok, Wanderings.)

God then tells Moshe that S/He has "certainly seen the affliction" (my translation) of Israel and it is high time to get them out of Egypt. And, in very succinct language, God appoints Moshe to bring the children out of Egypt.

And the first thing Moshe says? "I don't think so...." 

Moshe says "No." To God. "No," he says, to the speaker from whom he had to hide his face, he was so afraid (ירא, afraid, does not mean "fear" as in "scared" so much as it means "awe," "utmost respect," "reverence"):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-הָאֱלֹהִים, מִי אָנֹכִי, כִּי אֵלֵךְ אֶל-פַּרְעֹה; וְכִי אוֹצִיא אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם 11 And Moses said unto God: 'Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?'

(I have recently seen this, too, adduced as evidence of Moshe's humility. Taken by itself (and, therefore, out of context), a case could be made. "Who am I?" indeed sounds like a claim of unworthiness. If Moshe's arguments had ended here, perhaps that case could stand. But he doesn't stop here.)

And God replies (3:12): כִּי-אֶהְיֶה עִמָּךְ, "Because I will be with you" (my translation, emphasis added). 

So, Moshe's first refusal doesn't fly. Immediately, he seeks another way out, "I don't know your name." 

"I am that I am" is the usual translation of God's reply. "I will be what I will be" is another. "The eternal," "The everlasting" are others. As noted in the Etz Chaim (p. 330):

The phrase defies simple translation. It has been taken to mean "I am whatever I choose to be," "I am pure being." "I am more than you can comprehend."

and further notes that

The name is gender free [N.B.: the various other names by which God is known are not gender neutral, they are masculine], neither specifically masculine nor specifically feminine, as befits a God who embraces polarities of male and female, young and old, transcendent and near at hand. It may be connected to the phrase in verse 12, "I will be with you."

I sometimes wonder, however, why Moshe does not point out that Israel had no tradition of this name. They would not know it as a sign that Moshe was indeed sent by God. Did he not know this?-Yes, that's a rhetorical question.

Second refusal, brushed aside.

God proceeds to give Moshe the "introductory speech" he is to deliver to Israel (3:16-17) as if S/He has not heard Moshe's word. God promises that Israel will listen to him (first and last time?). The words to be spoken to Paro (a/k/a "Pharaoh," a title, not a name) are given. God promises, given that "the king of Egypt [Paro] will not give you leave to go, except by a mighty hand" that "I will put forth My hand, and smite Egypt" (3:20).

Well, you'd think this would be enough. But Moshe isn't done saying "no" (4:1):

וַיַּעַן מֹשֶׁה, וַיֹּאמֶר, וְהֵן לֹא-יַאֲמִינוּ לִי, וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי:כִּי יֹאמְרוּ, לֹא-נִרְאָה אֵלֶיךָ יְהוָה [But] Moses answered and said: 'But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken unto my voice; for they will say: The LORD hath not appeared unto thee.'

Just what is it about "Moish, bubbie, you are going to Egypt and you are going to take care of this for me" that Moshe doesn't understand? Do we have, here, a "failure to communicate?"

God tells Moshe to throw his rod on the ground, It turns it into a snake. God then instructs Moshe to grab the snake by the tail and it turns it back into a shepherd's rod. Pretty impressive, huh?

Third argument, shot down. But God's not quite done trying to get Moshe's attention. Instructed to put his hand into his cloak, Moshe finds "when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous, as white as snow" (4:6) and it is just as simply returned to normalcy.

Moshe has got to be impressed by now. Right?

Not our boy (4:10):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, בִּי אֲדֹנָי, לֹא אִישׁ דְּבָרִים אָנֹכִי גַּם מִתְּמוֹל גַּם מִשִּׁלְשֹׁם, גַּם מֵאָז דַּבֶּרְךָ אֶל-עַבְדֶּךָ: כִּי כְבַד-פֶּה וּכְבַד לָשׁוֹן, אָנֹכִי 10 And Moses said unto the LORD: 'Oh Lord, I am not a man of words, neither heretofore, nor since Thou hast spoken unto Thy servant; for I am slow of speech, and of a slow tongue.'

(Tevye had it right. For a man with speech problems, he sure does talk a lot.) This is his fourth try to get out of the mission. (But, given that he will be able to talk to Aaron, fluently one presumes from the text, this probably means that he doesn't speak the language of Israel which, since it is still several centuries in the future, was not Hebrew.)

God brushes this aside too.

Four tries and Moshe still isn't done:

וַיֹּאמֶר, בִּי אֲדֹנָי; שְׁלַח-נָא, בְּיַד-תִּשְׁלָח 13 And he said: 'Oh Lord, send, I pray Thee, by the hand of him whom Thou wilt send.'

The Etz Chaim renders this more simply: "Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent." In other words, "I just really don't want to do it."

Do I hear an "oy!"? But finally God (4:14) gets angry with Moshe and reads him the riot act. And still Moshe isn't done trying to get out of it! Five times he's said "no" and now he asks Jethro's permission to leave. Finally God orders him simply "Return to Egypt" (4:18) and, hitting the crux of the matter, "all the men are dead that sought thy life."

Six refusals before Moshe does what he's told. What kind of "humble" man gives God so much mishegos? If you told your child or your subordinate to do something, would you put up with this kind of behavior? See what I mean?

Taken by itself, at the burning bush, Moshe shows major chutzpah. But, this is only the first time, of many, Moshe gets up in God's face.

Consider the aftermath of the apostasy of the golden calf.

God sees the goings-on and is ... peeved. S/He orders Moshe down, off the mountain (note that God talks about Moshe as having brought Israel out of Egypt).

וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי, וְיִחַר-אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם; וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume [lit. "eat"] them; and I will make of thee a great nation.'

Shmot 32:10

God proposes wiping Israel out and starting over with Moshe and his family.

Moshe's response? "Uh, you can't do that. Bad PR, you know, wouldn't look good, not at all." Moshe will contradict God again, using this same argument after the incident of the spies and God's similar intent to do away with Israel (Bamidbar 14:11 ff).

Can you imagine telling an angry deity that S/He can't do what S/He wants? Can you say "chutzpah," with a capital "CHUTZ?" Oh, it so happens that Moshe wins these rounds. Chutzpadik, for sure, but "humble?" I don't think so.

It doesn't stop here, either. Later, Moshe asks to see God's face, to know God's essence!

 וְעַתָּה אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ, הוֹדִעֵנִי נָא אֶת-דְּרָכֶךָ, וְאֵדָעֲךָ Now therefore, I pray Thee, if I have found grace in Thy sight, show me now Thy ways, that I may know Thee.

Shmot 33:13

"Humble?" I don't think so. And there are many more examples of Moshe's lack of humility, as we understand that term.

How, then, does Torah assert that, not only was he humble, but more so than any person on earth?

There is a very serious disconnect here. Discussing it with my friend Richard Tupper some years ago, we both, virtually simultaneously, realized what Torah meant.

As often as Moshe stymies (or tries to) God’s will by saying “no,” as many uprisings as he puts down, as many judgments he renders (and, remember, until Yitro confronts him, Moshe has reserved judgment to himself), there is one thing he never does.

Moshe never claims responsibility for anything, anything, he did not do or say. He never takes credit that is not rightfully his or, more accurately, for what others have done. He always (and explicitly) gives credit to God for God's actions.

Moshe never once claims to have led Israel out of Egypt, never claims he freed Israel.

Even when God is ready to eradicate Israel and start over and says that Moshe brought the people out (Shmot 32:7):

 וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: לֶךְ-רֵד--כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם And the LORD spoke unto Moses: 'Go, get thee down; for thy people, that thou broughtest up out of the land of Egypt, have dealt corruptly;

(the Hebrew is in the second person -- "you" -- singular. They are Moshe's people and Moshe brought them out).

Moshe immediately responds, again in the second person singular, stating that God is (present tense) bringing them out:

 וַיְחַל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָה יְהוָה יֶחֱרֶה אַפְּךָ בְּעַמֶּךָ, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בְּכֹחַ גָּדוֹל וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה 11 And Moses besought the LORD his God, and said: 'LORD, why doth Thy wrath wax hot against Thy people, that Thou hast brought forth [lit. who you are bringing out or causing to go out]  out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?

Similarly, Moshe never claims to have revealed the torah (here, in the widest sense, "instruction") to Israel. Moshe never says "I gave you the torah." Moshe teaches it but the Lord gives it:

וְעַתָּה יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁמַע אֶל-הַחֻקִּים וְאֶל-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְלַמֵּד אֶתְכֶם, לַעֲשׂוֹת--לְמַעַן תִּחְיוּ, וּבָאתֶם וִירִשְׁתֶּם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵיכֶם, נֹתֵן לָכֶם And now, O Israel, hearken unto the statutes and unto the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD, the God of your fathers, giveth you.

Devarim 4:1

And never will Moshe lay claim to bringing the people into the land. It is always God who will do that:

כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ; וְנָשַׁל גּוֹיִם-רַבִּים מִפָּנֶיךָ הַחִתִּי וְהַגִּרְגָּשִׁי וְהָאֱמֹרִי וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי וְהַפְּרִזִּי, וְהַחִוִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי--שִׁבְעָה גוֹיִם, רַבִּים וַעֲצוּמִים מִמֶּךָּ When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before thee, the Hittite, and the Girgashite, and the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, seven nations greater and mightier than thou;
וּנְתָנָם יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, לְפָנֶיךָ--וְהִכִּיתָם: הַחֲרֵם תַּחֲרִים אֹתָם, לֹא-תִכְרֹת לָהֶם בְּרִית וְלֹא תְחָנֵּם and when the LORD thy God shall deliver them up before thee, and thou shalt smite them; then thou shalt utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them;

Devarim 7:1-2

To understand the impact of Moshe's behavior on the ancient mind, not taking credit for these great events, consider the land from which Israel has just emerged. Ramses II eradicated, literally erased, his father's name from every stele, every building he had constructed and substituted his own. The Egyptians tried to completely eradicate any reference to the Hyksos who had invaded, conquered and ruled Egypt for two centuries. The contributions of the Hyksos to Egyptian culture were irrelevant, though they were great and positive, the simple fact of being outsiders was enough that Egypt tried to blot out their name (does this remind you of the commandment to blot out the name of Amalek?).

In other words (and this was not entirely uncommon in the ancient world -- for example, in Greek "barbarian" means "one who does not speak Greek" -- just much more pronounced in Egypt - in Egypt the same word was used for "human being" and "Egyptian"), credit was constantly stolen.

Have you ever had a supervisor who took credit for your work or had a friend to whom this sort of thing happened? If so, you understand.

The Rabbis, as Rabbi Norman Lewison informed me after I first gave this d'var, take this matter so seriously that they say that one who takes credit for the words of another has no place in the kingdom to come.

This is why you will find quote marks throughout the Talmud, quote marks, indeed, the entire notion of citing sources being a Jewish "invention." It is why, throughout Jewish wisdom literature you constantly find the Rabbis citing the names of those from whom they had received a particular bit of knowledge.

And this is why Moshe was indeed a humble man.