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Torah Attitude: Parashas Beha'aloscha: From humility to prophecy


Moses was more humble than any other person. Moses experienced prophecy "mouth to mouth". The Rambam's 7th principle is that Moses was the greatest prophet of all time. Moses' wife, prophecy and humility are juxtaposed. Moses separated from his wife because of his prophecy. All prophets other than Moses had to prepare to receive their prophecy. Moses was in a class of his own. There are four major differences between the prophecy of Moses and everyone else. The second Pesach offering is but one example of the open communication between G'd and Moses. A prophet in training conducts himself on the highest spiritual level with no interest in worldly physical pleasures. A humble person appreciates that everything he enjoys is a blessing from G'd. Humility is the most important trait. The very fact that Moses was the most humble person on earth brought him close to G'd and made him the greatest prophet. G'd wants us to conduct ourselves in this way, realize our strengths with humbleness, and appreciate that everything comes from G'd.

Extremely humble

At the end of this week's portion (Bamidbar 12:1) the Torah relates how Miriam spoke with Aaron regarding the "Cushite" woman Moses had married. "They said, 'Was it only to Moses that G'd spoke? Did He not speak to us as well? And G'd heard. Now the man Moses was extremely humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth."

Mouth to mouth prophecy

After Miriam spoke with Aaron, G'd called Moses, Aaron and Miriam and instructed them to come out to the Tabernacle. Then G'd summoned Aaron and Miriam by themselves and explained the difference between when He spoke to Moses and when He spoke to them. G'd explained that when they or any other prophet experienced a prophecy, they would have a vision, or G'd spoke to them in a dream. But when Moses had a prophecy, G'd spoke to him directly. "Mouth to mouth do I [G'd] speak to him [Moses], in a clear vision and not in riddles" (Bamidbar 12:4-8).

7th Principle

This is what the Rambam refers to in the seventh principle of the thirteen principles of faith. The Rambam explains that Moses was the greatest of all prophets, before his time and after his time. He was a unique prophet as he achieved the highest level of prophecy that will ever be reached in history.

Three things juxtaposed

However, these verses raise a number of questions. What were Miriam and Aaron referring to when they spoke about Moses' wife? What did his prophecy have to do with her? And how did the humility of Moses have anything to do with it? In short, what is the connection between Moses' wife, his prophecy and his humility?

Spousal separation

Rashi quotes the Sifri (99) who explains what really was going on here. Miriam had become aware that Moses did not live a normal married life with his wife. She could not understand why Moses had separated himself from his wife because of his prophecy. She and Aaron were also prophets and they had not separated themselves from their spouses. They had never heard that G'd did not want prophets to have normal relationships with their spouses. They therefore questioned "Did G'd not speak to us as well?" As if to ask if we may have relations with our spouses, although we receive prophecy, why has Moses separated from his wife?

Prepared prophecy

G'd called upon Moses, Aaron and Miriam to demonstrate the difference between Moses and his brother and sister. Unlike any other prophet, Moses was ready at any time to receive a prophecy from G'd. Aaron and Miriam, and all other prophets, had to make preparations to receive their prophecy. They were not ready at all times to speak to G'd when called upon. When G'd summoned Aaron and Miriam, they first had to purify themselves before they could receive their prophecy from G'd.

A class of his own

This was G'd's message to Aaron and Miriam: Moses was in a class of his own. He attained a level of prophecy that was never and will never be attained by anyone else. He had to be ready constantly to speak to G'd. He could not live the regular life of other human beings. He alone had to live a special life; separated from his wife, in order to be able to communicate with G'd at any time.

Four differences

There are four major differences between the prophecy of Moses and all other prophets. First of all, Moses received his prophecy directly from G'd, whereas other prophets received their prophecies through intermediaries. Secondly, other prophets in general had their vision in a dream, so that their physical being should not interfere with the spiritual message. But Moses was on such a high spiritual level that he was above the physical limitations of this world. He did not need to be asleep in a trance when he received a Divine message. The third difference is that while other prophets would tremble from their prophetic experience, Moses was not affected physically when he received his prophecy. Finally, other prophets did not have free access to prophecy. They first had to prepare and elevate themselves. Only then could they wait for G'd to communicate with them. Moses, on the other hand, was on a level where he was ready to communicate with G'd at any time.

Second Pesach offering

In the beginning of this week's portion, (Bamidbar 9:4-8) the Torah relates how one year after the exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people were told to bring the Pesach offering. However, some people were impure and could not bring the offering. They had become impure from attending to their dearly deceased. They complained to Moses that they also wanted to bring a Pesach offering. Moses said to them, "stand and I shall hear what G'd will command you." He immediately communicated with G'd and was told that a Pesach offering could be brought next month on the fourteenth day. This is but one example of the immediate communication between G'd and Moses.

Prophecy and humility?

We can now understand why G'd had told Moses to live an isolated life on a higher spiritual level, even though that meant separating from his wife. But we still need to clarify what is the connection to Moses' great humility? To understand this we have to analyze the process of becoming a prophet.

Prophecy school

We find (see Melachim 1:20:35 and 2:2:3-15) that there were entire schools or yeshivas where people would study to become prophets. The Rambam (Laws of Fundamentals of the Torah 7:1) explains that in order for a person to become a prophet, he has to be a very learned person, and be in full control of his emotions. He has to be of sterling character, and his evil inclination has to have no power over him. He must be totally devoted to becomes close to G'd and sanctify himself till he reaches a high spiritual level with no interest in physical pleasures. Someone who is studying to become a prophet not only avoids all idle talk; he does not even think idle thoughts. His mind is constantly engaged in spiritual matters. Such a person may be worthy of the Divine spirit dwelling on him. The Rambam (ibid 2) continues to explain that there are many different levels of prophecy, just as not every scholar is on the same level. We already mentioned above that Moses was in a class of his own. Later the Rambam (ibid 4) points out that even those who attained such a high level of spirituality had to be in an elevated positive mood, with extreme feelings of happiness and satisfaction with their circumstances. Only if they were completely happy and satisfied were they ready to receive prophecy.

Spiritual ladder

The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 20a) quotes Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, who prescribes how a person can elevate himself to such a high level of holiness and spirituality that the Divine spirit will dwell upon him. Rabbi Moses Chaim Luzatto based his famous work on character development, The Path of the Just, on these words of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair. The basic level is Torah study and Torah observance. Proper Torah study will bring a person to be more cautious about his conduct, making sure that he does nothing wrong. The next step is to develop an eagerness to perform mitzvot and good deeds. One of the highest levels of this spiritual ladder is to achieve true humility. A truly humble person is not someone who belittles his qualities and does not appreciate his own strengths. Rather, a humble person realizes that everything he accomplishes is a blessing from G'd. This is the quality we find by Moses. He stood up against the mightiest kings and rebellions. He was well aware of his strengths, and he knew perfectly well who he was. But he did not take credit for this. He gave all the credit to G'd. He was merely utilizing G'd's blessings. This kind of true humbleness, say Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, brings about the highest level of fear of G'd. This is not the fear for the consequence of doing something wrong but an awe that develops from a love for and closeness to G'd. It contains an element of fear of doing something that might offend G'd. Once I realize that I owe everything I have to G'd, how can I displease Him? This high level of fear of G'd elevates a person to an even higher level of holiness and spirituality where one can merit that the Divine spirit will rest upon him.

The most important trait

The Ramban, in his famous letter to his son, emphasizes the importance of humility and he gives very concise instructions how one should conduct oneself with true humility. He explains how humility is the most important of all traits and it helps a person to become more G'd fearing. As it says, "on the heels of humility comes the fear of G'd" (Mishlei 22:4). He elaborates on how the humble person will always keep in mind, from where he came and where he is going (see also Perkei Avos 3:1). "When you conduct yourself in your interactions with other people with humbleness", writes the Ramban to his son, "and you are fearful of G'd not to sin, then you will merit that the Divine spirit will rest upon you."

The humbleness of Moses

This is the kind of character traits we find by Moses. When the Jewish people complained against him and Aaron that they had no food, Moses said, "Who are we, not against us are your complaints, but against G'd." Says the Talmud, (Chulin 89a) G'd said to the Jewish people, "This is why I like you, when I elevate you to greatness you humble yourself before Me as Moses who said 'who are we'. We can now understand that the very fact that Moses was the most humble person on earth brought him close to G'd and made him the greatest prophet. Only through humbleness did he reach this high level.

Everything comes from G'd

From the words of the Ramban and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto we learn that even nowadays when we do not have prophecy, the spiritual ladder of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair still applies. G'd wants us to develop our character traits and conduct ourselves accordingly. At the same time, we must always realize our strengths with humbleness, and appreciate that everything we have comes from G'd.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel