Humility is a Great Virtue!

June 10, 2011

It seems that every few weeks we are faced with another political scandal involving an elected official who has committed sexual indiscretions. This week it is Congressman Anthony Wiener who is caught in the press’ crossfire. A couple of weeks ago it was former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger of California. Before that it was Governor Elliot Spitzer and, of course, we can go on and on. Why is it that powerful men take such risks and do such stupid things? Don’t they understand that their reputations, their careers, and their very lives will be ruined by their very own actions? Commentators this week spoke about how powerful men surround themselves with aides who always agree with them. They put them on a pedestal and cause them to believe they are all powerful and invincible. They start to believe that ordinary rules do not apply to them. Since the voters have elected them, women must find them to be irresistible. These political giants do not inhabit the world of mortals and are not affected by consequences. After they are caught in their own duplicity they turn out to be moral pygmies.

The Jewish Tradition is no stranger to this phenomenon. Powerful men have not changed their behavior over the centuries. Their egos have always been expansive. The same phenomenon has occurred time and time again, in every society the world has known. “Rabbi Pinchas Shapiro of Koretz, a student of the Baal Shem Tov, taught that for most leaders, power and arrogance go hand in hand with sexual desire. He said that Moses was different from other leaders. He was not arrogant and thus his behavior was not controlled by his sexual desire.” Moses’ behavior was totally correct and appropriate throughout his life.

One would think that of all the human beings who have ever lived, Moses would have an incredibly large ego. After all, he was God’s chosen prophet, the only human being who ever saw God face to face. He spoke to God and was God’s appointed leader of the Israelite people. When Miriam and Aaron criticized their brother in this week’s Torah reading, they tried to diminish his stature and leadership. After Miriam and Aaron gossiped about Moses and expressed jealousy for his prerogatives, God said to them in B’haalotecha, “Hear these My words. When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so my servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.” (Numbers 12:6-8) So why did Moses not possess an ego commensurate with his stature?

Our text (Numbers 12:3) tells us that “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” “How did this humility express itself? The Spanish commentator Nachmanides tells us that Moses never quarreled…He never expected anyone to hold him in esteem and did not boast about his merits. He never sought superiority over any human being. He saw himself as everyone’s equal.” Maimonides said that even though Miriam and Aaron criticized him to his face, he restrained himself and did not reply to their disparaging comments. While any other individual would have protested against such calumnies, Moses retreated, perhaps out of concern for his siblings and their honor.

This episode in our Torah portion in which Miriam and Aaron criticize their brother and deride his leadership, “challenges us to confront the praiseworthy and rare quality of humility. Too often, the ego eclipses one’s need to be humble. Pridefulness ultimately breeds insecurity and contempt. Moses gives us a model of a leader who understands the true meaning of leadership. He chooses to lead for and with the people- not over and above them.”

Perhaps, if more of our political leaders viewed themselves as the servants of the people rather than those exalted by the people, they would be more humble and we would have fewer scandals like those of this week. Humility is one of the greatest of virtues. It is something to be cultivated and practiced. This is an important lesson not only for this Shabbat but for each and every day.

Amen and Shabbat shalom

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