Friday, June 24, 2016

Parsha Beha'alot'cha: Humility Begets Forgiveness and Healing

Talking about someone when they're not in the room. It's an all-too common occurrence in the world of interpersonal relations. So many of us have found the need to talk about others when they're not present. Talking behind someone's back: it can be ever so tempting to do. We actually see an instance of it in this week's Torah portion. Miriam is talking with her brother, Aaron, and instigates a conversation about Moses. The conversation goes something like this: Miriam makes a comment about Moses' wife, Tziporah, being a Cushite (Leviticus 12:1). They then say, "Has G-d only spoken through Moses? Has He not spoken through us , as well (Leviticus 12:2)?" After this conversation, the Torah says that Moses was a "very humble man" (ענו מאד), more so than anyone on earth (Leviticus 12:3). This humility could explain why G-d ended up getting angry on Moses' behalf. G-d metaphorically came down on a cloud to chastise Miriam and Aaron, and correct the two of them regarding Moses' level of prophecy. After leaving, Miriam contracted "leprosy" (צרעת). It didn't matter what Miriam had done for Moses. It didn't matter that she didn't air the dirty laundry in public. It didn't even matter that Moses didn't seem to mind. It was still still lashon hara, and Miriam was punished appropriately.

Rashi, in his commentary on Leviticus 12:1, tries to give Miriam the benefit of a doubt in this situation. At least at the beginning of the conversation, Rashi postulates that Miriam was concerned for Tzipporah because Miriam was concerned that Moses was neglecting his wife. The Rashbam believes that the Kushite woman was Moses' second wife, and that Moses' siblings were not thrilled with Moses' life choice. Even if we go with Rashi's approach and give Miriam the benefit of the doubt, it still does not absolve the second verse in which they play up sibling rivalry and ask why they don't have the same consideration as their brother Moses. One would think we would have learned our lesson from the Joseph story, but alas, that is not the case.

What catches my eye is that in contrast to the lashon hara being spoken by his siblings, we have a description of Moses as "a very humble man." Why? As Mussar text Duties of the Heart teaches, "All virtues and duties are dependent on humility." How so?  First, let's get a better grasp of what humility is. Numbers 12:3 refers to Moses as "very humble," or ענו מאד. When we hear the word "humble" in English, we often think of being meek because etymologically speaking, the word "humility" is so close to the word "humiliation." However, how could meekness be attributed to Moses? Moses was the adopted son of the most powerful man on earth. Moses had acquired many skills and talents over the years. He was considered the greatest prophet of the Jewish people, and led a group of thousands of complaining Jews. Given this context, Moses was not a meek man. Even with recognition of his gifts and who he was, he also realized who he was in relation to G-d (see Jeremiah 9:22-23). Humility, at least within a Jewish context, is not meekness. Being humble means having a sense of self-awareness and accurate understanding of the self. It means that the world doesn't revolve strictly around oneself. It means understanding your place in the world, but also to recognize that other people have space, and that you can make space for them.

That is exactly what Moses does in this week's Torah portion. Did it hurt Moses that his siblings were talking behind his back about his life choices and expressing jealousy? I can only imagine. At the same time, we see his reaction, especially in contrast to G-d's reaction. G-d's reaction, at least metaphorically, is to chastise Moses' siblings and give Miriam "leprosy." Moses, on the other hand, does not lash out at either one of his siblings. As a matter of fact, when Aaron beseeches Moses for help (Leviticus 12:11-12), what does Moses do? Moses cries out and says to G-d:

אל נא רפא נא לה.
Heal her now, G-d, I beseech you. -Leviticus 12:13

A short, yet powerful prayer on his sister's behalf. We don't see Moses throwing a temper tantrum (at least at not yet) or seeking revenge on his siblings. He acts as the bigger man and prays that his sister is healed. He puts aside his ego and realizes that the world is much more than the self. As R. Sir Jonathan Sacks points out, humility means honoring others (see Pirkei Avot 4:1) and regarding them as important, not less than yourself. "It does not mean holding yourself low; it means holding others high." It is why the Ralbag teaches that based on this passage, one assists an individual that has caused you harm and is being [seemingly] punished (The Ralbag naturally adds the caveat that one helps those who are actually remorseful, but still, Moses' actions speak volumes).

Why are Moses' actions and humility important? When one is not angry, it is easier to see more clearly, which is why the Talmudic rabbis associated anger with idolatry (Talmud, Shabbat 105b). Not only can one see clearly, but with humility, it's not all about the self. Ego is removed from the equation. Moses was able to feel pity for his sister (R. Abraham ben Izra on Leviticus 12:13). As R. Kook stated, "Humility is associated with spiritual perfection. When humility engenders depression, it is defective. When it is genuine, it inspires joy, courage, and inner dignity." Humility is an internal sense of self that allows for one to maximize spiritual potential. It allowed for Moses to be patient (Rashi on Leviticus 12:3), particularly with his siblings' imperfections. Humility leads to patience. His patience led to forgiveness. The process allowed for him to heal himself, which in turn allowed for him to focus on healing his sister. If this passage teaches us anything, it reminds us of the spiritual potential that we can reach as a result of being humble. May we reach a level of humility that is comparable to that of Moses.

1 comment:

  1. Yasher Koach. A very good definition of humility. I have met many people, including grown men, who don't have the kind of humility you define and describe as being possessed by Moshe Rabbeinu. Usually I've seen this arrogance in gay white men "of a certain age", with lots of income and lots of higher education under their belts. They've been bachelors for many years and are accustomed to getting what they want, being deferred to, living in a very self-centered lifestyle and having things their own way all the time. Then they get in a relationship and don't really have the emotional skill to negotiate with another person. And yes, in the spirit of humility I have to admit that many of those adjectives sometimes describe me, too.

    I've always thought that it was almost poetically important that Miriam was stricken with leprosy, or something akin to it. Miriam's leprosy from G-d happens right after she criticizes Moses for marrying the African woman. I thought this represented G-d telling Miriam not to be over-proud of her lighter skin.