How Humble Is Too Humble?
By Beth Kalisch
When we open the Book of Exodus this week, and turn to Parashat Sh’mot, we find that the Israelites are suffering under the tyranny of ego. Pharaoh, a despot who believes himself to be more powerful than God – indeed, he believes that he is a god himself – has enslaved the Israelites in order to secure his own power.
In this context, I find it particularly fitting that the leader who emerges to help the Israelites escape from Egyptian slavery is Moses, whom the Torah describes as “a very humble man, more so than any other human being on earth” (Numbers 12:3). While Pharaoh’s first words in Exodus are focused on oppressing the Israelites to consolidate his own power, our introduction to Moses in this week’s Torah portion highlights Moses’ humility and his doubts about stepping into leadership. No one can accuse Moses of being a rival to Pharaoh, of leading the Jewish people for his own self-aggrandizement. When God calls to Moses at the Burning Bush and charges him with the mission of going to Pharaoh and demanding the Israelites’ freedom, Moses humbly shrugs off the mantle of leadership five times (See Exodus 3:11, 13; 4:1; 4:10; 4:13).
First, Moses is merely modest: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh . . . ?” (Exodus 3:11) he asks God. But God assures him that God’s Presence will be with him, and so Moses need not feel intimidated. Next, Moses demeans his own standing among the Israelites and points out that he has no proof to show them that he has actually spoken with God (3:13). So God gives Moses proof: the knowledge of God’s own name, and reassures him that “they will listen to you,” (3:18). But Moses hesitates a third time: “What if they do not believe me?” (4:1). This time, God gives him physical proof in the form of a staff that becomes a snake on command, the quick healing of a skin affliction, and the promise of water turning into blood.
Still, Moses is not ready to accept. He tries a fourth time (4:10), pointing to his speech impediment or perhaps a generalized fear of public speaking, as making him a poor spokesman. When God reassures him that he is up to the task, Moses has no more excuses, but simply begs, “Please, O my lord, make someone else Your agent!” (Exodus 4:13).
Some years I read this interaction and feel inspired by Moses’ humility. This, I think, is what the world needs more of: leaders who lead only as an act of service to a greater good, not in order to feed their egos. I read it and think about how far my own humility falls short of the model that Moses sets for us. When I have stepped up to leadership, I wonder, have I always done so out of pure motives?
But this year, I’ve been thinking about humility a little differently, thanks to a midrash I read in a little-known collection that dates to the first two centuries C.E. The Rabbis who wrote this midrash imagined that far from being pleased by Moses’ humility, God must have seen it as an affront:
“They told a parable: To what is the matter alike? It is like a king who had a servant whom he loved completely. The king sought to make him his administrator… What did the king do? He took the servant by his hand, and brought him into his treasury, and showed him his silver vessels, golden vessels, fine stones and gems, and all that he possessed within his treasury. After this, he brought him outside and showed him [his] trees, gardens, parks, enclosed areas, and all that was his in the fields. Afterward, the servant closed his hand and said, ‘I am unable to be the administrator…’ The king said to him, ‘Since [you knew] that you could not be the administrator, why did you put me through all this trouble?!’ And the king was angry with him, and decreed that he should never enter his palace.” (Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 1:4)1
This parable, the Rabbis explain, can be compared to God, who wanted Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and must have been angry when Moses, although he spent time talking with God at the Burning Bush, didn’t feel comfortable accepting the job. It was at this moment and for this sin, the midrash imagines, that God decreed the punishment for Moses that he would not enter the Land of Israel together with the rest of the people.2
It’s a strikingly vivid parable – one that inverts our expectations for the relationship between God and Moses, and challenges us to think about the proper balance of humility and ego. Moses was being called to serve, called to a sacred task, the midrash reminds us. For him to show such reluctance was not an act of humility, but of hubris. By making himself so small, he ended up making himself more important than the people that he was being called to serve.
I think the most challenging part of the midrash is the king’s – and hence God’s – frustration at “all this trouble” that the king has gone through, only to have the servant turn down the opportunity to serve. What a powerful image: God as a sovereign in search of a partner, frustrated that capable people refuse to help with all the work that needs to be done in the world.
And so this year, as I read the conversation at the Burning Bush, I wonder how deeply I have responded to God’s call. What is the “trouble” that God has gone to in order to prepare me to be the kind of leader that my community, my congregation, and my family need? What are the gifts I have received that will be squandered if I don’t have enough regard for them to put them to use? Like Moses, may we all find the courage to stop coming up with excuses to avoid the sacred work we know we need to do.
- David Nelson, trans., annot., Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2006), p. 4