Beha'alotekha 2016 - 5776 - Moses the Humble (משה עניו)

Post date: Jun 23, 2016 8:31:45 PM


This week’s reading – parshat Beha’alotekha – begins with a description of the duties and procedures of the Levites, assistants to the priestly class. The parsha continues to describe the Israelites’ journey through the desert, including their organization by tribe and their complaints at the lack of meat and fresh food they were given to eat.

At this point in the Torah, the people are well into their travels, and Moshe has been leading them for quite some time. Here, as in other stories, Moshe becomes frustrated and angry with the Israelites after listening to their numerous grievances – we want to eat meat; in Egypt we had fish, melons, leeks, etc.; why can we only have manna here in the desert. Hearing this, Moshe turns to God and says, “Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, such that you lay the burden of all this people upon me?”

And, if this were not enough to communicate his displeasure with the Israelites, Moshe goes on to ask if he has conceived and birthed the people of Israel, and now has the responsibility of suckling them, as one would a helpless infant. Finally, to make sure his point is very clear, Moshe tells God, “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me. And if you are going to deal with me like this, kill me, I pray you.” God instructs Moses to get help.

In this section of the Torah, no one is happy. The Israelites are frustrated with their rations of only manna; Moshe is angry at the Israelites for having to hear every one of them complain about the food; and God is angry at the Israelites for rejecting God by their lack of gratitude for being freed from Egypt.

God’s solution to this situation is to gather a council of seventy elders and bring them together to have the ru’ah (spirit) of God fall on to them, so they can act as prophets to the rest of the Israelites. It seems like this plan allows for Moshe to split the burden of communicating between God and the people and share that burden with the council of elders. By allowing these elders to experience the spirit of God, they are being granted authority in the camp, thus relieving Moshe of his burden of leading the people alone.

Remembering back to the book of Shemot, Moshe’s father-in-law, Yitro, gives him a similar solution to the problem of judging the disputes of all the people of Israel. In that case, Moshe was listening to disputes day in and day out, and was weary and overwhelmed. Yitro suggests a system of judges – for tens, fifties, hundreds, and thousands of people. This way, Moshe is only required to deal with disputes that no one else can resolve.

What is particularly striking in both stories – this week’s parsha and parshat Yitro – is that Moshe has almost complete authority over the people of Israel. He has the kind of power that the most unsavory of people crave. And yet, when given this enormous amount of power, Moshe feels burdened and utterly overwhelmed by it. He would rather be killed by God than take on the responsibility of leadership over an angry, frustrated nation.

The last chapter in this week’s parsha, chapter 12, describes Moshe as anav. This word is variously translated as “poor,” “lowly,” “afflicted,” “weak,” “humble,” and “meek.” The exact verse is: וְהָאִ֥ישׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה ענו [עָנָ֣יו] מְאֹ֑ד מִכֹּל֙ הָֽאָדָ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה׃ “Now the man Moses was more humble than any other man on the face of the earth.” Many will recognize the word from the Pesah Haggadah, where we hold up the matzah and announce: “Ha Lahma Anyah” - this is the bread of affliction.

Anavah – the noun form – is often translated as humility, and thought by the Mussar rabbis to be an important trait to possess, though in moderation. (See here.) Does Moshe have a moderate amount of humility? Many stories throughout the Torah would suggest that he does not. In fact, many of the most well-known stories about Moshe are those of his reluctance to lead, frustration at the demands of power and authority, and inability to control his temper when the activities of leading a nation become frustrating.

So why is Moshe called anav? In reading the passages of this week’s parsha, it seems possible that Moshe is called humble because, as a leader, he cares more for the desires of his people than for himself. At so many points in Moshe’s leadership of the Israelite people – his reluctance to take on the task at the burning bush, his impatience at getting them water, his feeling overwhelmed by judging all of their disputes, his anger at their creating the golden calf, and here, his fury at their complaints about the manna – Moshe’s negative emotion is coming out of his desire to do what is best for his people. Moshe wants their disputes settled, them to have food and water, and them to have God’s commandments instead of an idol. When the people act out, Moshe is helpless to tell them that they are not seeing the bigger picture.

Certainly, we want leaders like Moshe, who care about the needs and desires of their people so dearly. However, Moshe is also not a balanced leader – he possesses too much anavah – too much humility. When he sees the people acting out of selfish, short-sightedness, he is not able to say, “Quiet down! You are free and have food to eat! That is plenty for now, and things will get better soon.” Instead, he begs God for death over having to communicate a harsh message to the Israelites.

The mark of a strong leader, the Torah seems to tell us, is a person who can both hear and be sensitive to their people, and also one with confidence in their vision for the future. Too much sensitivity, and one is an anav. Too much confidence, and we have a dictator - someone who is absorbed with power and cares only about themselves and maintaining their power. As we move into another season of choosing leaders for our nation, we must think about electing officials with a balanced amount of anavah – strong leaders, who can both listen attentively and lead confidently.

Yvonne Asher