Moses’ Humility

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Alan: If—due to his humility—Moshe argued with God to write “Vayikar” (God chanced upon Moshe) instead of “Vayikra” (God called Moshe by name), why didn’t Moshe argue with God to remove the open verse stating how modest Moshe was?

Rabbi: The rabbis write that the small alef in “Vayikra” (Lev.1:1) meaning “to call” is a compromise. In his great modesty, Moshe declined God’s open declaration that He called him personally, and thereby Moshe requested the word be written “vayikar”, meaning God chanced upon Moshe—not directly calling him—thereby reducing Moshe’s importance. God compromised telling Moshe to retain the alef, but to make it smaller to appease Moshe. The lesson: God wished the Torah to reveal that He both favored Moshe more than a chance calling, but that Moshe’s humility was also an important lesson. 

Moshe’s “conversation” with God may be a metaphor scripted by the rabbis, as are all medrashim. There was no conversation. 

But even if we say that conversation occurred literally, there is a lesson; it’s not merely a record of an argument. That lesson is to teach that Torah is not limited to content about God’s laws. Torah also intends to convey the character of the authoritative Torah transmitters. The system of Torah relies not only on the messages, but on those who teach it. This in turn teaches that people are affected by the personalities and value of their teaches. Had Moshe been an unruly, dominant personality, people would not respect him or what he has to say, regardless of the accuracy of his teachings. So sensitive are people concerning their teachers, the Torah’s very script must bear out this lesson. 

Perhaps this lesson is placed in Vayikra, as the focus is prominent: the very first word of the beginning of a sefer is in a bright spotlight. This is where Moshe’s humility is brought out. 

Regarding the verse “And the man Moshe was exceedingly more humble than all men on the face of the earth?” (Num. 12:3), why didn’t Moshe dispute God’s inclusion of this glaring declaration of his modesty? This verse follows these two verses: 

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married, for he married a Cushite woman. They said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’ The LORD heard it.”

We then read, “And the man Moshe was exceedingly more humble than all men on the face of the earth?” The verse’s sequence answers your question. We are told of Moshe’s humility in order to correct Miriam and Aaron’s misconception. The latter felt Moshe left his wife due to his elevated status as a prophet, suggesting he acted on his self-esteem. Therefore, we are told he was in fact the most humble man, and that Miriam and Aaron were wrong. Moshe left his wife at God’s command, not his own decision. Moshe knew this lesson was important, and therefore did not reject God’s inclusion of this verse. Torah must not hide truths. But in Vayikra, Moshe saw no necessity to be in the spotlight, he saw no lesson, and therefore disputed God’s declaration. God however said there is a lesson beyond the text, a lesson concerning the character of Torah’s transmitters, and insisted Moshe retain the alef.