There is only one virtue explicitly ascribed to Moshe: “Now Moshe was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Numbers 12:3). That this is the only virtue the Torah attributes to its greatest hero is itself the most significant indication of the importance Judaism places upon humility.
Why is it that Moshe, the one who would seemingly be the most likely candidate to revel in fame and popularity, was the most humble? Most men who see their names in volumes and journals far less significant – infinitely less significant – than the Bible seem to have no check on their ego. And yet Moshe, the most famous man, was also the most humble.
This is because if one measures oneself against the infinite and eternal Creator, he understands his own relative insignificance. Thus precisely because Moshe achieved such a tangible closeness to God was he more humble than any man to have walked the earth.
“One’s greatness as a person depends,” explains Rabbi Avraham Chaim Feuer, “on the degree to which one can truly perceive his Creator’s presence and make this ultimate yardstick a reality for himself.” Consequently arrogant people are that way precisely because they judge themselves not in relationship to God, but in contrast to those who are less accomplished.
A scientific interpretation might also be offered to explain Moshe’s humility. Plants are endowed with a mechanism that causes them to bend toward light. Known as phototropism, the explanation can get more technical regarding auxins, elongated cells and external stimuli – but the essence is that no matter which direction a plant is pointing, it will always bend toward the source of light.
Because Moshe was so connected to the “Source,” the influence was overwhelming. God’s presence worked as axiomatically on Moshe’s self-image as light does to an organism. Because Moshe was so close to the Almighty and so cognizant of His greatness, that his own self-image, in contrast, was infinitesimally miniscule. Others, not blessed with Moshe’s awareness, feel a far greater distance from the Source, yet feel neither overwhelmed nor any other impingement upon their self-image.
It would follow that humility means not judging ourselves in comparison with others, but in accord with our own personal capabilities and the tasks we believe God has allocated for us. This was well articulated by Rabbi Yisroel Salanter: “I know that I have the mental capacity of a thousand men, but because of that, my obligation is also that of a thousand men.”
Such a perspective, as Rabbi Joseph Telushkin elaborates, teaches that the very capabilities that can make a person most proud are also those that should be the most humbling. If we are endowed with significant wisdom, then we also have a greater responsibility to bring others to wisdom. If we have wealth, then we have a greater responsibility to help those in need. If we occupy a position of power, we have a greater obligation to help the oppressed. Thinking about how much we can do in comparison to what we have done serves as a corrective against pride and arrogance.
Thus says the Orchos Tzaddikim, “All of the good things I do are but a drop in the ocean in comparison to what I ought to do.” There was a cinematic portrayal of this lesson in Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning film, “Schindler’s List.”
The movie relates how Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler saved close to 1,200 Jews from extermination. When the members of Schindler’s List were liberated, the former prisoners schemed as to what gesture they could afford to express to their benefactor in terms of their gratitude. As impoverished former slaves, they were bereft of any financial means.