For most of us, Moshe is a difficult person to comprehend. His spirituality was so far removed from anything that we know that it is very difficult to have insight into this unique giant. Moreover, he presents us with a bit of a paradox. The Torah tells us that he was greater than anyone else in prophecy as well as in modesty. While we understand that all Jews need to be modest, it is hard to know how that works for someone leagues above everybody else.
Bilaam, the central figure in parshat Balak, may give us some insight. The midrash (Sifri 34:10) informs us that Bilaam was really at least as great a prophet as Moshe. To those familiar with Bilaam’s story this may come as quite a surprise – not only doesn’t Bilaam appear to be great, he seems to be base as well as foolish (to the point that he is outsmarted by his own donkey!).
Perhaps the midrash is telling us that Bilaam had the same, or greater, potential as Moshe. Consequently, Bilaam might have started with the same intellectual capabilities and heightened appreciation of the spiritual and moral realms. With such potential, he could have reached the level that Moshe reached.
There was just one hitch – he did not develop the modesty required of a prophet. For without modesty, prophecy is too easily misused. It becomes just another talent that can be used to get ahead and – ultimately – even for corruption. It is quite clear from Bilaam’s interactions with Balak in this week’s parsha that Bilaam sought to use his talents for personal gain, and thereby defile them.
While it is easy to see Bilaam’s mistake, it is easier still to appreciate the unusual perspective needed to avoid making his mistake. Bilaam’s slogan might have been, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re great.” And if Bilaam was as great as indicated by the aforementioned midrash, then we can appreciate his lack of humility. If our own understanding was compared to that of Moshe, would we not be tempted to look down at other mortals? Would we not consider the difference between ourselves and others to be very great indeed?
Perhaps, however, the reason we ask such questions is because we share Bilaam’s warped perspective. Once we understand that human perspective is relative and assumes (incorrectly) that humans are at the center of all existence, we may get greater insight into Moshe’s success as a prophet. As Moshe grew to have a greater understanding of God, he likely started looking at the world from God’s perspective. No doubt, while Bilaam also must have understood that God’s perspective is the correct perspective, his ego prevented him from accepting such a humbling insight. After all, from that point of view, he would have become very small indeed.
It is likely that Moshe knew that he was the greatest man to ever live. What allowed Moshe to know this and still be extremely modest was his perspective. If a great person compares himself to other humans, he will probably think very highly of himself. If, however, he sees himself from the perspective of God, the need to be humble is obvious. To put if differently, even if you are the greatest ant in the world, how great can an ant be? True, man is far superior to an ant on many different levels. Yet it would be difficult to claim that the difference between man and ants is greater then the difference between man and God.
In view of the above it is no coincidence that the greatest man was also the most humble. True humility comes from an elevated and ultimately truer perspective. If Bilaam’s slogan might have been “It’s hard to be humble when you’re great,” the Jewish response would be, “It’s impossible not to be humble when you’re truly great