On Shabbat, my family always precedes the motzi blessing on challah with a little tune. We sing, “We give thanks to God for bread, our voices rise in song together as our _______ prayer is said.” The blank is filled with any impromptu word that expresses how the family is feeling that week. Lately, the word “humble” has been filling that spot a lot: “Our humble prayer is said.”
In this week’s parshah we learn of one of the most important character traits of Moshe — his humility. Hungry and thirsty in the desert, the people of Israel complain and rally against Moshe. They cry out that they would rather have remained in the safety of slavery in Egypt, where they always had a square meal, than face the uncertainty of freedom in the desert. Moshe calls out to God for help, claiming that he cannot lead these people alone; that the burden is too great for him. In response, God offers to confer the spirit of leadership of 70 elders to assist him. When two of them — Eldad and Medad — begin to prophesy in the camp, Moshe’s trusted friend Joshua Ben Nun entreats Moshe to restrain this challenge to his leadership. Moshe replies, “Why are you jealous on my account? Would that all God’s people were prophets, and that God conferred the spirit upon all of them!” Moshe is a humble leader who hopes that all Jewish people can demonstrate leadership. He does not desire to be the only one who has the gift of God’s spirit.
At the end of the parshah, Moshe faces another leadership and personal challenge. His own brother and sister defy him, claiming that they too are prophets of God. It is here that we read the famous verse, that “Moshe was very humble, more than any other person on earth.” Perhaps Moshe reached the depths of his humility at this moment, because his very own brother and sister challenged him. God is furious with Aaron and Miriam’s arrogance and strikes Miriam with leprosy. But Moshe, rather than showing anger or disappointment, responds by praying for Miriam to be healed. This moment, where his love for his sister overcomes any slight, he may have felt, is a shining moment in Moshe’s leadership.
From this moment we learn how love may be the strongest source for the capacity for humility.