This week’s parashah opens with Korah’s fundamental challenge to the authority of Moshe and Aharon:
וַיִּקָּהֲלוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם רַב לָכֶם כִּי כָל הָעֵדָה כֻּלָּם קְדֹשִׁים וּבְתוֹכָם ה' וּמַדּוּעַ תִּתְנַשְּׂאוּ עַל קְהַל ה':
And they gathered against Moshe and Aharon and they said to them, “You have too much. For all of the group is holy and God is inside them. Why do you elevate yourselves over the congregation of God?”
Korah’s claim is that Moshe and Aharon are monopolizing the available leadership roles in a way that is not justified. All of the people are holy and worthy of serving God, yet Moshe and Aharon are in the positions that are most prominent and most proximate to God. Moshe demonstrates that he and Aharon are both suited to their roles and chosen by God, and his response highlights what it is about his character that makes him so deserving. Moshe’s reaction teaches us what it means to truly serve God with wisdom and humility, whatever your role is and whatever your talents may be.
Moshe never responds to Korah on Korah’s own terms. Korah wants Moshe to justify a claim that Moshe is better, but Moshe will not. Moshe’s concern is to demonstrate that he is intrinsically worthy. He devises a test to legitimate Aharon’s right to be the Kohen Gadol, by having all of the pretenders to the priesthood offer incense alongside Aharon. When God chooses Aharon in this test, the choice of Aharon will be vindicated. Before this test takes place, we hear Moshe defending himself as he prays:
וַיִּחַר לְמֹשֶׁה מְאֹד וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל ה' אַל תֵּפֶן אֶל מִנְחָתָם לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי וְלֹא הֲרֵעֹתִי אֶת אַחַד מֵהֶם:
Moshe became very angry and said to God, “Do not be inclined toward their offering. I have not taken a single donkey from them, nor have I dealt wrongly with any of them.”
Moshe seems to be afraid that Korah and his cronies will win, even though he knows that they should not. As a humble person, Moshe doesn’t think of himself as better, so the accusation that Korah and his followers cast in his direction actually has some plausibility to Moshe’s own ears. And we see that Moshe, in contrast to Korah, does not think in terms of relative value; he does not say anything about the way in which he (or his brother) compares to Korah. Nor does he reference the great things he has done and all of the ways in which he is so clearly superior. Instead, he tells God that he has not done anything wrong. Moshe does not want to compare himself to Korah, and he does not need to. He shows the importance of holding oneself to an absolute standard. He isn’t less corrupt than other politicians; he is simply not corrupt. He isn’t better than his competition; he is just objectively good. He looks only at his own behavior and evaluates it on its own terms.
However, there is something strange about the examples that Moshe chooses to demonstrate his goodness. Moshe’s defense, that he has not taken anyone’s donkey, seems a little underwhelming. Moshe has many qualities that make him exceptional and supremely qualified, so the fact that he is not a thief or an exploiter seems to be rather thin and insufficient praise. R. Yohanan1 suggests that Moshe is not priding himself on not stealing or not confiscating the property of the people, since that is nothing to brag about. Rather, R. Yohanan argues that when Moshe says that he hasn’t taken a donkey, he means that he did not even need to rent a donkey because he himself was so wealthy. This is consistent with R. Yohanan’s view, that wealth is actually a prerequisite to becoming a prophet and that Moshe is the source for this idea:
תלמוד בבלי נדרים לח.
אמר ר' יוחנן אין הקב"ה משרה שכינתו אלא על גבור ועשיר וחכם ועניו וכולן ממשה…
Talmud Bavli Nedarim 38a
R. Yohanan said: God will only rest His presence on one who is strong, wealthy, wise, and humble. And we learn all of these from Moshe.
Thus, when Moshe says that he is wealthy, he is actually saying that he is worthy. And whereas R. Yohanan is consistent, his perspective is perplexing. Why should one need to be wealthy or strong in order to be a prophet? Tremendous wealth, or sizeable social or physical stature, does not necessarily correlate with spiritual greatness. The Torah Temimah2 addresses this question and explains that in fact, of the four characteristics that R. Yohanan cites (strength, wealth, wisdom, and humility), only the last, humility, is necessary for prophecy:3
תורה תמימה <חלק הביאורים> במדבר יב:ג
אמנם בכלל לא נתבאר לי מאי זכות היא לאלה המעלות, גבורה, עושר, וחכמה, שעבורם ישרה ה' שכינתו, ובשלמא מדת הענוה בודאי מעלה גדולה היא וחביבה לפני המקום...אבל זולת מדה זו במה נחשבו הם לעומת גדלות של הקב"ה שיכבדם כ"כ...ובשבת צ"ב א' חשיב עוד במספר מעלות אלו מי שהוא בעל קומה ויליף ג"כ ממשה, וגם זה מוסיף פלא, במה זכתה מדה זו להשראת השכינה:.. והבאור הוא, כי מעלות אלו מגבילים ערך הענוה, יען שאינו דומה ענוה של איש חלש ואביון ואינו מלומד, לענוה של איש גבור ועשיר וחכם וגם בעל קומה, יען כי בעוד שלהראשון ענוותו באה לו בטבע מסבת שפלותו ורוחו הכהה, הנה להשני מעלות נפשו וכשרונותיו גורמות לעורר בו רוח גאוה ולפסוע על ראשי אנשים פחותים ממנו, ואם איש כזה הוא עניו אמתי אז מדת ענוותו באמת מעלה גדולה היא מאין כמוה.
Torah Temimah, Helek Ha-Biurim on BeMidbar 12:3
Indeed, it is not at all clear to me what merit there is to all of these advantages4—strength, wealth, wisdom—that on their account God would cause His presence to rest on a person. The attribute of humility does make sense, since it is clearly a great attribute and is beloved by the Omnipresent...but aside from this character trait, what is so great about the others that it would cause the Holy Blessed One to honor them so?! And on Shabbat 91a, it lists these advantages again and adds, “one who is tall,” which they also learn from Moshe! And this just adds to the wonder. How could this advantage cause one to merit the resting of God’s presence?!...And the explanation is that these advantages define the value of the humility, since the humility of someone who is weak, impoverished, and unlettered can’t be compared to the humility of one who is strong, wealthy, smart, and even tall. For the first one’s humility comes to him naturally on account of his lowliness, whereas for the second, his soul’s advantages and his own talents awaken a spirit of arrogance in him and inspire him to step on the heads of the people beneath him. But if a person like this is a truly humble person, then his humility is an incomparable character trait...
According to the Torah Temimah, the significance of the wealth, strength, and wisdom of the prophet is that these traits ordinarily serve as checks on one’s humility. If a man can be very powerful and still be exceedingly humble, this proves that he is truly humble and not merely meek. He explains that it is no great accomplishment to think modestly of yourself if your accomplishments are, in fact, quite modest. However, to be a person of great wealth and great talents and at the same time to be humble is a true accomplishment which signifies a deep and finely developed character. When Moshe says that he has not taken any donkey from the people, he argues that he is deserving because of his good character, but he is also highlighting his humility, albeit in the subtle and indirect way consistent with his possession of this fine trait.
Moshe is the model of humility not because he thinks that he is undeserving or inadequate. He certainly thinks that he and Aharon are deserving, and he is willing to prove it at a tremendously high cost.5 Moshe’s example teaches that what it means to be humble is to hold yourself to an absolute standard. Rather than compare yourself to other people, you should compare yourself to yourself. You assess what your abilities are in order to know what God expects from you, and you work hard on doing what you know you can and what you know you should. The race you run is against yourself. You win if you realize your potential, and you lose if you squander it; the progress of other people is not relevant to your own. To this end, knowing that you are talented and acknowledging your own greatness is not antithetical to humility—it is part of the charge that a humble person must recognize.
Rav Kook6 highlights this dynamic in his teachings about arrogance and humility and how they interact:
מידות הראי"ה. גאוה: כד.
אדם יכול למצא בעצמו נקודות עליונות, גדולות, חשובות וגבוהות מאד, גם נקודות אפילות, שפלות ובזויות מאד, ויהיה נבזה בעיניו מצד הצדדים השליליים שלו, וגדול ויקר בעיניו מצד הנקודות העליונות הטובות. אמנם גם מצד הנקודות הטובות לא יהיה מתגאה, אדרבא ימלא גם על-ידן ענות-רוח עד אין קץ, שהרי הם הם המעירים אותו לתבע מעצמו את פתוחן של הנקודות הללו, שהן אצלו כמו גולם.
Middot Ha-Ra’ayah, Pride 24
A person can find in himself certain spiritual elements which are great, important, and very elevated, along with dark elements that are very low and disgraceful. And he will be disgraced in his own eyes because of these negative aspects, and he will be great and honored in his own eyes because of these good spiritual elements. However, he should also not be arrogant on account of the good elements; to the contrary, he should be endlessly filled by them with a spirit of humility. For it is they which awaken in him [that he] demand from himself the development of these elements which are now in him in the form of potential.
Rav Kook’s understanding of humility points to the way that we often misunderstand what humility and arrogance truly are. Humility is not thinking badly of yourself, and arrogance is not thinking that you are great; thinking that you are wonderful or terrible is merely a byproduct of these character traits. Arrogance is comparing yourself to other people, and humility is comparing yourself to yourself. Arrogant people makes excuses for themselves based on the behavior of others—“At least I’m not as bad as that person,” “If I had the money that so-and-so has I’d also be charitable; I’m actually more charitable than them in relative terms,” “Of course she’s more successful than me, she’s had more opportunities; if I were dealt her hand in life, I would be even more successful.” By contrast, a humble person looks inward and asks: “Who am I? What can I do? What is my purpose and what do I need to realize my goals?”
Rav Kook echoes this sentiment in his exploration of humility:
מידות הראי"ה. ענוה: ז.
כל-זמן שהענוה מביאה עצבון היא פסולה וכשהיא כשרה מוסיפה היא שמחה, גבורה וכבוד פנימי.
Middot Ha-Ra’ayah, Humility 7
Whenever humility brings sadness, it is invalid, but when it is valid, it increases joy, strength, and self-esteem.
Perhaps this can help us understand R. Yohanan’s position in a new way. It isn’t that humility is just one of the traits on his list, but that humility is what invites the other traits. A humble person is wise, a humble person is strong, a humble person is wealthy, and a humble person holds their head up high. As we know from Pirkei Avot, a strong person is one who conquers themselves and a wealthy person is one who is happy with their own portion.7
A humble person strives to see themselves through the eyes of God, not the eyes of other people. And it is because the humble person is always looking towards God, that God is always seeking the humble one. And this is why the humble merit receiving prophecy. They tune out the noise of other people and tune in to the will of God. And just as the humble person is looking to God, God is also looking to connect to and communicate with the humble person. As the midrash teaches,
ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשת ויקרא פרשה א:ה
וכן היה הלל אומר- השפלתי היא הגבהתי, הגבהתי היא השפלתי. מה טעם? המגביהי לשבת המשפילי לראות (תהלים קיג:ה-ו)…תדע שהוא כן, שמכולם לא קרא הדיבור אלא למשה, דכתיב ויקרא אל משה.
VaYikra Rabbah (Margaliot) Parashat VaYikra 1:5
And so Hillel said, “When I am low, I am raised, and when I am high, I am lowered.” What is the reason? [God] who dwells on high and looks down (Tehilim 113:5-6)... And know that this is so, that out of everyone only Moshe was summoned by the Divine word, as it is written, He summoned Moshe (VaYikra 1:1).
The plain meaning of the verse in Tehilim quoted by Hillel is that even though God sits on high, He can nevertheless see the lowly. In Hillel’s creative reading, God sits on high in order to see the lowly, for it is the humble—who don’t present themselves and call attention to themselves—whom God desires. The midrash continues to say that it was precisely this quality that inspired God to choose Moshe. When He saw that Moshe hid his face in humility and fear at the burning bush, God noticed Moshe’s reluctance to see and be seen. He therefore chose to send Moshe to Egypt, to make Moshe our leader. God noticed that Moshe stood to the side at the Red Sea, God noticed that Moshe stood to the side at Har Sinai, and God noticed that Moshe stood to the side at the Ohel Mo’ed, the tent of meeting. At each point, God encouraged Moshe to act, to see himself as significant. God summons Moshe to be His because of Moshe’s humility.
When you are humble, God is looking to communicate with you, ha-mashpili lir’ot, and when you are humble, you are able to recognize, accept, and relay the truth that God reveals. A truly humble person, and no one more than Moshe Rabbeinu, is therefore able to speak to God mouth to mouth and face to face, to look up to God and find that God is looking to him.
1 Talmud Bavli Nedarim 38a.
2 R. Barukh HaLevi Epstein 1860-1941, Belarus.
3 The prooftext that R. Yohanan brings to support the notion that Moshe is humble, וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה, And Moshe, the man, was exceedingly humble, more so than any other person on the face of the earth, is the way that God defends Moshe from Aharon and Miriam’s concerns about worthiness, so it is fitting that humility is viewed as the central trait by the Torah Temimah.
4 The word מעלה is difficult to render into English. It literally means “height” and connotes a positive character trait or personal achievement.
5 BeMidbar 16:28-30.
6 R. Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, 1865-1935, Russia then Israel.
7 C.f. Mishnah Avot 4:1 “Ben Zoma says...Who is strong? One who conquers his inclinations...Who is rich? The person who is satisfied with their lot.”