Moses, the Most Humble of Men
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:
And, ever since, Moses has been known as "the most humble of men." ["Meek" just is not anywhere near correct.]
"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):
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"):
(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):
and further notes that
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):
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):
(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:
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).
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!
"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?
is a very serious disconnect here. Discussing it with my friend Richard Tupper
some years ago, we both, virtually simultaneously, realized what Torah meant.
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
when God is ready to eradicate
(the Hebrew is in the second person -- "you" -- singular. They are
Moshe's people and Moshe brought them out).
(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:
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:
And never will Moshe lay claim to bringing the people into the land. It is always God who will do that:
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.
And this is why Moshe was indeed a humble man.