Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Beha’alotecha: Humble, Not Meek

I don’t usually disagree publicly with lecturers, particularly when they are expressing opinions which are mostly consistent with my own. But there was one time when I felt that I had to speak up and object to one of the speaker’s expressions.

It was at a lecture on the subject of self-absorption. The speaker characterized the time we live in as “the age of narcissism.” He argued that we live in an era when most people are totally self-centered and guilty of false pride and arrogance. He advanced many examples to bolster his position.

Although I found his hypothesis to be somewhat extreme, I could agree with much of what he was saying. I, too, have often felt that the phrase “the me generation” was an apt appellation for contemporary society.

But then the gentleman at the podium made a statement that touched a raw nerve in me. He said something that I had heard expressed many times over the years and have invariably felt compelled to correct.

He said that, as a good Christian, he found the hubris which predominated contemporary society to be quite contrary to “the Christian values of forgiveness and humility.” It was his description of these noble values as being of Christian origin, and the way in which he conveyed his conviction that his own faith tradition somehow “owned” them, that brought me to my feet.

“I must object,” I asserted, “not to your major thesis about the faults of our generation, but to your insistence on identifying what you believe to be the desirable qualities for the human race with Christianity, and with Christianity alone.”

I must confess that I was secretly hoping that my protest would cause him to at least modify his remarks, and perhaps speak, as so many do, of the “Judeo-Christian values of forgiveness and humility.”

But that was not to be. Instead, he cited chapter and verse in the Christian Bible on the importance of forgiveness, and then, raising his voice for emphasis, said: “Surely, the learned Rabbi knows that it is in the Book of Matthew that we find the phrase, ‘And the meek shall inherit the earth.’ ”

I will not report what I said to him about forgiveness as a Jewish virtue. I will save those remarks for another occasion. But, because of the connection to this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16), I will share with you the essence of my retort with regard to the Jewish origin of the all-important virtue of humility.

“Yes, my dear sir,” I replied, “this learned Rabbi does indeed know that the phrase that you translate as, ‘And the meek shall inherit the earth,’ appears in your Scriptures. But I also know that the identical phrase appears in the Book of Psalms chapter 37, verse 11, written many centuries before Matthew. And I also know that translating the Hebrew word anavim as ‘the meek’ is not quite correct. We preferred to translate anavim as ‘the humble,’ and not as ‘the meek'”.

I continued to build my argument by quoting the verse near the end of this week’s Torah portion, “Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.” (Numbers 12:3) “There is no way,” I insisted, “that the Torah would use the word anav to describe Moses if the word meant ‘meek.’ Moses was not meek. I think you will agree that the image evoked by the phrase ‘a meek person’ is that of a weak person, or at least a mild-mannered one. Moses was most certainly neither weak nor mild-mannered. He was strong, in body and in spirit, and could be quite assertive when circumstances called for assertiveness.”

While I do not delude myself into thinking that I changed my adversary’s mind, I did get the audience thinking. This was proven when about a dozen of those present gathered around me after the lecture was concluded and asked me to expand upon the Jewish definition of humility.

I told them that a comprehensive discussion of the importance which Judaism assigns to the character trait of anava, or humility, would take a very long time. I agreed, however, to share with them but one thought upon the subject.

I quoted to them the following passage in the Talmud (Nedarim 38a):

“Rabbi Yochanan said: ‘The Holy One Blessed Be He allows the Shechinah [the Divine Presence] to rest only upon someone who is strong, wealthy, wise, and humble. All of these traits were to be found in Moses. Humility, as it is written, ‘Now Moses was a very humble man…’ ”

It was not long before one member of the group asked the question that I was expecting. “Does the Almighty really favor people with the mundane virtues of strength and wealth? I would think that He would rather favor spiritual virtues.”

“Your question,” I responded, “was anticipated by a rabbi who wrote in the early 20th century. His name was Rabbi Baruch Epstein, and whereas his magnum opus, entitled Torah Temimah, was written in 1904, he lived to an advanced old age and witnessed the Holocaust. His answer is a most instructive one.”

I then went on to describe that answer. I told the group that the test of humility can only be passed by one who is strong and wealthy and wise. If someone who lacks those resources acts humbly, we cannot be sure that he in truth possesses a humble character. It could be that he acts humbly simply because he is weak, or poor, or of limited intelligence. God, therefore, chooses to have the Shechinah dwell with the person who, despite his many assets and talents, remains humble. He is the one who is genuinely an anav.

Thus, writes Rabbi Epstein, “It is precisely because Moses was powerful and wealthy and wise and tall, and yet humble, that we can speak of him as the ‘humblest of men.’ ”

There is much wisdom in this manner of understanding the virtue of humility, of anava. The anav is not a meek person. Quite the contrary. He has many talents and many skills. He is fully aware of his capacities and of his strengths. And yet he recognizes that these gifts are just that, gifts. Moreover, these gifts are Divine blessings, and he has no right to be proud of them as if they were his personal achievements.

The humble man recognizes that his very advantage over others is a gift of God. That is what allows him to utilize his powers to help achieve God’s purposes, not out of meekness, but out of humility.

Once again, Moses is a model for all of us. We are called upon to be humble, but that doesn’t mean that we are to be weak, passive, or submissive. We can be strong, active, and assertive—and humble.