PERASHAT BEHA’ALOTEKHA: Humility and Jewish Leadership

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Who was the humblest person who ever lived on the face of the earth? The answer is in Bamidbar (Numbers) 12: 3.

In antiquity, the virtues exalted among non-Jewish leaders were not humility or integrity. They were physical power (Hercules); military ingenuity (Alexander the Great), or cunning and mischief (Hermes). Among pagan civilizations, humility never deserved to be exalted as a virtue.

Moshe was the leader of the people of Israel also on the political and military level: Moshe confronted Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the world at that time. Moshe led the way out of slavery of three million people,  and he also led the victorious battles against Sihon and ‘Og. The Tora, however, never emphasizes Moshe’s physical or military virtues: what stands out in the Tora is the character and personality of Moshe

There are two episodes, reported in this week’s Perasha, where we can appreciate the nature of Moshe’s humility. And the nature of humility in general.

Let’s start by saying that every leader has two types of agendas: his public agenda and his personal agenda. The public, political or community agenda includes everything this leader wants to do for his or her community, people, or nation. The personal agenda is what he wants to do for his or her personal benefit, in material terms, narcissism , self-image, etc. One could say that sometimes these two dimensions of leadership are inversely proportional: the greater the purely political aspiration, in other words, the more the leader aspires the good of others, the more willing he will be sacrifice his agenda or personal benefit. On the other hand, when the ultimate goal of the political leader is his personal benefit, he will be willing to sacrifice the common good to achieve his selfish goals.

Here are some examples of Moshe’s leadership.

1. In Shemot Moshe reacts with indignation as he descends from Mount Sinai and sees the people worshiping a golden calf. The people had replaced HaShem with an Egyptian idol …. Such was the indignation of Moshe that he broke the Tables.

2. In this week’s Perasha, when the people complained that they only had manna to eat and start to longing for what they ate in Egypt, Moshe was also “offended” . These complaints represented a total lack of acknowledgment to Hashem and to all His protection and intervention in the desert. Moshe was not able to tolerate this offense (ובעיני משה רע).

3. In Bamidbar, when the people complained, saying “Why did they bring us out of Egypt and brought us into this wilderness? To make us die of thirst and hunger?” Again, the people complained about HaShem. And Moshe reacted, accusing the people of Israel of “rebellion” (שמעו נא המורים).

These three cases in which Moshe reacts have something in common: the people are complaining about HaShem; they were ungrateful to HaShem or were trying to replace HaShem.

Now let’s look at another kind of reactions from Moshe.

1. In this week’s Perasha there is a very interesting episode, that of Eldad and Medad, two men who were “prophesying” in the camp of Israel, an exclusive prerogative of Moshe until then. This  event was noted by Yehoshua, who immediately reports to Moshe this incident and proposes to “eliminate” possible competition. Moshes’ response is incredible (Bamidbar 11:29): “And Moses answered him, are you jealous for me? I wish all the people of HaShem would prophesy, and [I wish] HaShem would bestow his prophecy [also] on them!”

2. There is another similar episode in our Perasha (Bamidbar 12: 1-2). “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe … Did HaShem only spoken to Moshe?“. Did not He also spoken by [or “to”] us?”

On this occasion, again, Moshe does not get angry or react. There is no jealousy or reproach. Moshe remains silent.

Why?

Because Moshe is “offended”, or he reacts and acts with passion when it comes to the honor of HaShem, His cause (which was  also “his” cause), or when it comes to the cause of the people of Israel. But when it comes to something personal, his own honor, Moshe does not bother. It is enough for him to know the truth about his own integrity. He does not get offended and acts with zero degrees  arrogance. He does not mind competition in leadership. Quite the opposite: he wants to stimulate it. He wants other people to reach the same level as He.

These seemingly small gestures of Moshe are a great demonstration of his great humility and altruism. That is why the Tora says in our Parasha (Bamidbar 12: 3)

“And Moshe was a very humble man, more [humble] than any other man on the face of the earth”

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