This week’s parsha—VA-ERA—narrates the exchange between God and Moshe about Moshe’s eventual leadership of the Jewish people. And we know that Moshe resists his calling—he worries about his speech impediment, he tells God that the Israelites will not listen to him, he mentions his older brother Aaron, and he tries everything in his power to dissuade God from appointing him. One popular explanation for God’s choice of Moshe as a leader is that Moshe is an ANAV.
I think we probably all know this word—we hear it all the time, especially in the book of Exodus. And just as we frequently call Abraham, Abraham Avinu, so we often note that Moshe is an ANAV. What does that word mean? YES—HUMBLE. In fact, Moshe called himself the most humble person on earth. Imagine—this person who led the Israelites out of slavery, who received the Ten Commandments and the Torah from God, who is perhaps the greatest prophet of all time, who is the only person who is able to speak DIRECTLY with God—this is not just a humble person, but the most humble person on the planet. One tractate tells us that “all the other prophets looked at God through a murky glass. But Moshe looked at God through a CLEAR glass.” Isn’t it amazing to think that someone with all of those accomplishments would be able to remain humble?
I think that most of us—with even ONE of these things on our resumes, would have a tendency to get a swelled head. But Moshe does not; and he never does.
We tend to take for granted that the word ANAV translates to HUMBLE. But not all translations do that. The Christian Bible—the King James Version—translates ANAV as MEEK. What do you think?
I may be biased, and I know that the business of translation is tricky. But I’m with all of you. I think MEEK is not a good translation of ANAV. And I think that Moshe may have been humble, but he was certainly not meek. Meekness, in my opinion, is very different from humility. So look at our text. Moshe kills the task master to save the life of a Jewish slave. Moshe stands up to God and challenges God’s selection of him as the leader of the Israelites. Moshe (along with his brother Aaron) confronts Pharaoh with the power of God and his love for the Jewish people. Moshe may have sinned by striking the rock and by losing his patience with the people, but those sins make clear that he is hardly a meek man.
But humble is very different. When Miriam and Aaron challenge Moshe’s authority, he never defends himself; in fact, it takes God to intervene to defend Moshe. When Korach rebels, we never see Moshe defend his leadership; in every case, he invokes God to make clear that he is only an emissary. There is even a midrash that when the five daughters of Tzelafchad came to Moshe to ask whether they could inherit, he made the decision to let them inherit their father’s estate because they had no brothers. But Moshe tells them that it was God who decided the issue; and midrash tells us that Moshe wanted the daughters to feel honored that God—and not humble Moshe--would decide in their favor. So, here again, Moshe willingly deflects attention away from himself.
There’s a saying that good leaders always take the blame and never take the credit for what happens. That’s a really hard lesson to learn. It’s so much easier to pat ourselves on the back when things go well, and to point fingers when things don’t. Moshe is a good leader because he knows who he is and he doesn’t need accolades or adoration. So maybe humility and confidence go hand in hand. If you’re truly confident, you can afford to be humble. You know who you are and you don’t let others’ doubts or successes blind you to that awareness. Let us pray that we might all learn this lesson from Moshe Rabbenu.