With this week’s Torah reading, we begin our study of fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar (Numbers).
This Shabbat immediately precedes the glorious festival of Shavuot, commemorating the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai – a double-header weekend indeed! Shavuot begins the moment after Shabbat ends on Saturday night and concludes Sunday evening.
The giving of the Torah is celebrated here in Israel with intense joy and thanksgiving but also with a deep sense of humility that we were given this amazing gift.
In this week’s Parsha, the Torah details for us the arrangement of the 12 Tribes in the Israelite camp. After a long explanation of who will travel first, and who will travel last, the Torah says: “And the Jewish people did exactly as they were instructed” (Numbers 1:54).
In order to truly understand biblical humility, we need to realize what it is NOT. Humility is not a timid reluctance to speak up or be assertive. Humility is not slouching your shoulders, walking with your head bent down and over-dosing on low self-esteem. Later in this book of Bamidbar, we will read that Moses was “the most humble person who ever lived” – and yet he aggressively confronted Pharaoh, fought a war against Amalek, and did not hesitate to rebuke the Jewish people when they needed it.
So what is it then?
The Midrash explains that when God outlined the arrangement of the Tribes, Moses feared it would lead to arguments. Moses reasoned that perhaps if the tribe of Yehudah was told to travel in the East, they may say they want to travel in the South, and so forth with each of the tribes.
God reminded Moses that when the 12 sons of Ya’acov carried their father’s coffin, the arrangement of the sons ‘prophesied’the future positioning of the tribes in the camp. Therefore, each one’s proper place was already made clear. And there is the key: Humility is to know one’s place because when each one knows their place, peace and tranquility is the inevitable result.
This applies to our relationship with God as well. The higher a person truly becomes spiritually, the more humble he becomes. As we get closer to God, we become more realistic about our own limitations, vulnerability and mortality. The reality that every human’s position is tenable and only God is eternal is internalized more deeply.
Moses was called “the most humble” because when he stood before God he knew his place. That’s why the Talmud likens arrogance to idol worship; for the presence of God cannot dwell with the arrogant or the idolater.
True humility means living with the reality that nothing matters except doing the right thing. The humble person is not swayed by the opinion of others. Just a few days ago I heard a well known teacher make this statement: “What other people think of me is none of my business.”
An arrogant person, on the other hand, is concerned only about himself and how things will turn out to suit his self-centered needs. A very simple definition of arrogance is “I’m all that counts” while humility says “What’s greater than me is what counts.” The humble person has the ability to rise above his self-serving ego and give honor and respect to those around him. The position or calling of another causes no ego crisis for the humble.
So how do we achieve humility? The first thing a Jew does upon awakening in the morning is to say the Modeh Ani prayer: “I acknowledge you, God, for graciously returning my soul for yet another day. Thank you!”
Step One to humility is to acknowledge our complete dependence on God. Each new day is a gift and when we realize it for ourselves, we also recognize that the same gift has been given to everyone else.
Step Two to humility is found in the opening verse of this week’s parsha. “And God spoke to Moses in the Sinai Desert” (Numbers 1:1). The Sages ask a fundamental question: Why was the Torah given in a desert? Because a desert is empty. To acquire Torah – to receive God’s wisdom – we must be as empty vessels, clinging not to our own limited understandings but open to learn God’s ways, remembering that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are so much higher than ours.
In Tune with Torah this week: As we approach Shabbat and the Shavuot festival, may we each relive the Sinai experience, echoing what our ancestors declared, “We will do and we will hear.” May we humble ourselves so that the truth of God and His Torah may enter deep inside our souls.