Parashat Beha’alotkha

by Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky

Near the end of this week’s parashah, in the midst of Aharon and Miriam’s attempt to undermine Moshe’s authority, the Torah tells us that “Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3) In the eyes of the Rabbis humility was a trait that all people should try and acquire. Rabbi Yohanan, a third century sage from the Land of Israel, included humble people as one of the few upon whom the Shekhinah, God’s presence, would rest. (Nedarim 38a)
The Talmud relates the following story about Moshe.
R. Joshua b. Levi said, “When Moses came down from before the Holy One, blessed be He, the Satan came and said before him, ‘Lord of the world, where is the Torah?’ “He said to him, ‘I gave it to the earth.’ “He went to the earth and said to her, ‘Where is the Torah?’ “‘God understands her way’ (Job. 28:23). “He went to the sea, and it replied, ‘It is not with me.’ “He went to the deep, and it replied, ‘It is not in me,’ for it is said, ‘The deep says, it is not in me, and the sea says, it is not with me, destruction and death say, we have heard a rumor thereof with our ears’ (Job. 28:14, 22). “So he went back and said before the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Lord of the world, I have searched throughout the earth but not found it.’ “He said to him, ‘Go to the Son of Amram.’ “He went to Moses. He said to him, ‘The Torah that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave you — where is it?’ “He said to him, ‘So what am I, that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave me the Torah?’ “Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses, ‘Moses, you’re a liar!’ “He said before him, ‘Lord of the world, you have a precious thing stored up for yourself, with which you play every day. Am I going to hold on to the benefit of that for myself?’ “Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses, ‘Since you have humbled yourself, it will be called by your name: “Remember you the Torah of Moses, my servant”‘ (Mal. 3:22).” (Shabbat 89a, modified from Neusner trans.)
The Rabbis understood that it was sometimes difficult to be humble and that human nature was not necessarily naturally inclined towards humility.
There is the case of Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, who was coming from the house of his master in Migdal Gedor, riding on an donkey and making his way along the river bank. He was in a very happy frame of mind and feeling good about himself because he had learned a great deal of Torah. An unusually ugly man came along. He said to him, “Peace be to you, my lord,” but [Simeon] did not reply to him. Then [Simeon] said to him, “Empty head! what a beast [how ugly] you are! Is it possible that everyone in your town is as ugly as you are?” He said to him, “I really couldn’t say, but go to the craftsman who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly is that utensil that you have made!'” When Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar realized that he had sinned, he got off his donkey and prostrated himself before the man, saying to him, “I beg you to forgive me.” He said to him, “I shall not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman who made me and tell him, ‘How ugly is that utensil that you have made!'” He ran after the man for three miles until he came to his town. The people of the town came out to meet him [i.e. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar]. They said toward him, “Peace be to you, my master, my master, my teacher, my teacher.” He [i.e. the man] said to them, “Whom do you call, ‘my master, my master’?” They said to him, To the one who is going along after you.” He said to them, “If this is a ‘my master,’ may there not be many more like him in Israel.” They said to him, “God forbid! and what has he done to you?” He said to them, “Such and such he did to me.” They said to him, “Nonetheless, forgive him, for he is a man who is great in Torah-learning.” He said to them, “Lo, for your sake I forgive him, on the condition that he not make a habit of acting in that way.” On that same day Rabbi Simeon entered the study-house and gave an exposition: “A person should always be as yielding as a reed and never as unyielding as a cedar. “Therefore the reed merited that from it is taken the pen for the writing of the scroll of the Torah, tefillin, and mezuzot.” (Ta’anit 20a-b, modified from Neusner trans.)
At first Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar exhibited the opposite of humility, showing distaste for another human being whom he felt was not as good-looking as himself. It is important to emphasize that this lack of humility had its origins in the study of Torah. “He was in a very happy frame of mind and feeling good about himself because he had learned a great deal of Torah.” Sometimes even the things that are central values in our lives can become the source of intolerance and hatred. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar eventually understood that the feelings of a fellow human being are more important than even his own accomplishments in the study of Torah, for healing an injured person is the very fulfillment of the Torah.
Rabbi Michael Pitkowsky is the AJR Rabbinics Curriculum Coordinator.