Project Genesis

Basics of Judaism

Basic Values and Morality

Humility vs. Responsibility

Question: Two Jewish values are humility on the one hand, and taking responsibility on the other. While it may be important to shy away from honors and the limelight, it’s also important to take responsibility when duty calls. Moses is known as the humblest of all men. When G-d asks him to go to Pharaoh to ask that he let the Jews free, he’s reluctant to take the responsibility. Isn’t this misplaced humility – considering the physical lives of the Jewish slaves that are at stake and the spiritual dimension of bringing them to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah?

Answer: True humility has little to do with the concept in the secular world. I guess the secular version of humility means something like “lying so as not to appear vain”. Both the speaker and the listeners understand that he doesn’t really mean it, that he can’t, because his humble words are not true – but it’s polite. The ideal is if the person actually convinces himself of what he’s saying; otherwise it’s called “false humility”.

The Torah concept is entirely different. The person can be fully cognizant of his special abilities. The only thing is, he understands that all those abilities are given to him by Hashem (G-d). He is a vessel for them; his goal is to use what Hashem gave him in his service. This is why the classic work Chovas Hal’vovos, in his chapter on Humility, says an amazing thing: that one of the characteristics of humility is to act strongly and fiercely in defense of G-d’s values. If a person doesn’t do that, he’s not really humble at all – he’s just feeble!

Given all this, I think that your question is really excellent. Why would Moses try to refuse the job of leading the redemption of Israel? He was the best man for the job. Once he took the job, he was very tough when he needed to be. He stood up for G-d’s honor, and he fought his wars.

I think this is why our Sages understood that Moses had a very different motivation. During their discussion, G-d says to Moses that his brother Aaron is coming out to meet him, and will “see him and be happy in his heart”. Why mention that? The Sages explain that Aaron had been the leader of the people, and Moses was very concerned that his brother not feel upstaged (as so many older brothers had felt throughout the book of Genesis). Once Hashem reassured him that there was nothing to worry about, he resisted no more.

Best wishes,
Michoel Reach

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