by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – January 29, 2010
In the Torah portion of B’Shalach, G-d culminates his series of punishments that he administers against the Egyptians on behalf of the great-great grandchildren of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After many many years of slavery, constant beatings, backbreaking toil, and abject fear and terror, G-d decides to finally put an end to this situation. He forces the cruel Egyptians to release the people of Israel, administers ten plagues, punishing the Egyptians for their many years of brutality, and finally annihilates them in the Red Sea, allowing the progeny of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to return to the land that their forefathers roamed which was populated at the time by the Canaanites, a thoroughly barbaric people totally devoid of ethics and morality.
To introduce his message to the people of Israel and to the Egyptians, G-d chooses as his messenger Moses and instructs him to “arise in the morning and stand up before Pharaoh” (Sh’mot 9:13 ). In the commentary Or HaChaim, we are informed that G-d was telling Moses to put aside his customary humility whereby he would bow his head before anyone greater or lesser than he. Here, where he was to speak with the leader of the most powerful nation in the world to deliver a message of unequivocal truth and justice, Moses was to stand up straight without a sign of submissiveness and forcefully deliver this message. In fact, by the time that he is completed speaking with Pharoah, Moses unabashedly shows his disdain for this tyrant: “And he went forth from Pharoah’s presence in burning anger” (Sh’mot 11:8).
Indeed, Moses was described as “exceedingly humble more than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). This, however, did not mean that he hesitated to speak or act forcefully. When some Israelites failed to follow the instructions regarding the manna, as mentioned in this week’s Torah portion, Moses did not shy away from letting them know how he felt. “And Moses was angry with them” (Sh’mot 16:20). Later, when he descended Mount Sinai to find the people of Israel dancing around a golden calf, Moses did not hesitate to express his disgust in no uncertain terms, shattering the Holy Tablets at the foot of the mountain. When Korach and his henchmen stirred dissension among the people, Moses did not hesitate to show his anger, asking that these conceited rabble-rousers who challenged his legitimate G-d appointed leadership of the people meet with an awesome punishment. When the tribes of Reuven and Gad approached him to request settlement on the other side of the Jordan, Moses did not hesitate to express his dismay at what he saw to be the breaking of the people’s unity. And when the Amorites repelled any overtures of peace and chose to wage war with the people of Israel , Moses did not hesitate to fight them ferociously and with no regrets.
Moses learned that humility is not antithetical to strength of character and recognizing who you are. Humility is not to be interpreted as hiding behind closed doors, fearing to express one’s mind whatever the urgency or appropriateness of the message. Humility is not for a bright and educated individual to make believe that he is an uneducated fool. Humility is refraining from boasting or lording one’s achievements, knowledge and talents over another. Humility is appreciating and respecting every individual for what he is whether that individual is more or less educated, knowledgeable or talented.
Moses, the first leader of our people, known by Jews across the globe as Moshe Rabenu – Moses our teacher – taught us that humility is not to be confused with weakness or with being a wimp. When the truth must be told or acted upon, humility is to be set aside. If one has the opportunity to do so, especially if one is in a leadership role, he should stand up straight and speak his mind – no apologies. When injustice is to be fought, he should unabashedly and firmly express his conviction, whether speaking to his neighbors or to world leaders. This is the lesson taught to us by Moses our teacher. This is his lesson in humility and leadership.