This week's portion returns to the narrative where we left off several months ago as the Torah begins to relate the significant events which occured after the dedication of the mishkan (Tabernacle).
This week's portion returns to the narrative where we left off several months ago as the Torah begins to relate the significant events which occured after the dedication of the mishkan (Tabernacle). Here begins what seems to be an endless series of complaints, turmoil, and tragedies which occur to the Jewish people while in the desert. Perhaps the man affected most by these problems is the venerable leader Moses. Reluctant to accept the job of leading the Jewish people out of Egypt in the first place, Moses now faces almost constant dissension, both from the nation as a whole and from other recognized leaders.
This week in Beha'alotcha we read about at least three major affronts to Moses' leadership. First, the people complain about the food situation, unsatisfied with their daily heavenly gift of manna. They remember the "wonderful" time that they spent in Egypt where they had plenty of "free" food. (Please see Daniel Lasar's article for more details.) Secondly, after appointing seventy elders to serve on the Sanhedrin (Jewish court), two of them remain behind in the camp, proclaiming a prophecy. About what? Rashi, the fundamental 11th century French commentator, quoting the midrash, fills us in: They were predicting that Moses would not be the one to lead the Jewish people into the promised land. Certainly, this could not have been something that Moses particularly wanted to hear. Finally, the two closest members of his family -- his sister Miriam and his brother Aaron -- prophets themselves, criticize Moses, as Rashi explains, for seperating from his wife. It was a tough Torah portion for him, and more trouble follows in the coming weeks.
Interestingly, it is here that we find the famous verse complimenting Moses for his humility: "Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3). One may wonder why that verse is interjected at this point. Is this the greatest accolade that Hashem can think of at this time? His chosen leader is being battered and bruised from all sides, and this is the best defense that Hashem can provide to affirm Moses' leadership! Surely, Hashem has more firepower in his divine arsenal with which to lend Moses support.
However, perhaps a brief analysis of human psychology answers the question, while at the same time providing an important piece of advice to us as we struggle to improve our character traits. The Ksav Sofer, a leader of Hungarian Jewry in the middle decades of the 19th century, explains that there are two kinds of people who outwardly appear to be humble. The first one is, in reality, plagued by arrogance, but puts on a facade to draw praise from others. He realizes that acting in a haughty manner is not the best way to draw attention, so he feigns extraordinary humility. On the other hand, the person in the second category is truly humble and desires no recognition at all for achieving that high level of character development. The best way to distinguish between these two people is to see how they react to criticism. If the person's humility is only an act, his immediate reaction to a confrontation will be a defensive one. He will attempt to refute the reproach in every possible way because, after all, his major concern is that he receive his "much-deserved" credit and appreciation. He won't stand idly by while others take free shots at him; therefore his suppossed humility will need to wait a while so that he can defend himself. On the other hand, if his character is really as refined as it outwardly appears, he will remain silent even when the criticism is unwarranted, as his goal is not to gain recognition or appreciation, but rather to do the right thing. This is the true proof of humility -- silence in the face of criticism.
Silence was Moses' reaction towards the people when they complained about the food. Later, he was thrilled to hear that there were other people prophecising in the camp, even though the prophets foretold of his eventual downfall. Once again, Moses remained silent when confronted by his sister's criticism. In fact, Moses remained so silent that Hashem was forced to come to his rescue in a most dramatic way, suddenly appearing to Moses and his siblings, thereby clearly demonstarting that Moses had been correct in separating from his wife. (Please see Numbers 12:4-8 and the accompanying Rashi for further explanation.) Therefore, this indeed was the perfect place for the Torah to compliment Moses on his humility, for it was in this section that he had passed the test.
For most of us, controlling our arrogance is a daily struggle; certainly, remaining silent in the face of complaints and adversity is a lofty goal. We can, however, learn from Moses' actions and the Torah's praise to appreciate the importance of striving to attain the attribute of humility, and continually take small steps towards conquering that character trait.
Michael Alterman, who hails from Atlanta and is an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, will be studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in the Fall.
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