“And the man Moshe was extremely humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.” [12:3]
The Medrash (Sifrei, Yalkut) comments that Moshe was more humble than any person “on the face of the earth” — but not more so than the angels.
The Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan zt”l of Radin, asks a straightforward question. He says: this verse is truly amazing. The person who brought the Jewish people out of Egypt, who split the sea for them, and received the Torah from Heaven — how could he possibly consider himself smaller than everyone else?
The answer is: true greatness is measured not in the eyes of other people, but in the eyes of G-d. We cannot judge people by absolute standards of measure. A person’s obligation, in the Service of G-d, is based upon how well he or she understands our obligation. Precisely because Moshe had ascended to Heaven, he believed that he had not fulfilled his obligations. He could not judge himself against the people “on the face of the earth,” for he alone had ascended to Heaven with the angels, and was required to be that much more like an angel than an ordinary man.
We are not judged based upon where we are, but upon what we have accomplished with the “tools” we are given. Moshe had such lofty experiences that, in his eyes, he failed to accomplish that which was expected of him. He made no such judgement of others — and thus was truly the most humble person on earth. In his eyes, everyone “on the face of the earth” was doing at least as well as he.
If this sounds difficult to imagine, we must realize how thoroughly the Chofetz Chaim integrated this lesson into his own life. There is a popular story, recorded by his student Rabbi Shmuel Greineman in “The Chofetz Chaim on the Torah,” which demonstrates how incredibly humble was the Chofetz Chaim himself, even though he was known throughout the Jewish community for his saintliness.
An older Rabbi from Radin was on a train, and another Jewish man across from him struck up a conversation. The second person asked the Rabbi where he came from, and when the Rabbi responded, the second Jew began to speak about the Chofetz Chaim. “They say about the Chofetz Chaim, who lives in your town, that he is a completely righteous man!”
“Surely you’re joking!” replied the Rabbi. “I know him well — he’s an ordinary Jew, just like all the Jews of Radin.”
The second man was very offended. Everyone knew that the Chofetz Chaim was the righteous man of the generation, and here was a Rabbi — from the same town, no less — who dared to put him down! But the Rabbi insisted that he knew the Chofetz Chaim quite well, and he was no righteous man, just an ordinary Jew. The second man became more and more furious, and sharply criticized this Rabbi for failing to give credit where credit was due.
Before too long, the train arrived in a town, and more Jewish passengers came aboard. Some immediately recognized that the old Rabbi was none other than the Chofetz Chaim himself, and came over to him to wish him well and seek his company.
Of course, the second man was extremely embarrassed, and was practically beside himself begging forgiveness for his rudeness. But the Chofetz Chaim pushed him off, saying “why do you need my forgiveness? Did you sin? You thought incorrectly that I was a righteous person, but since you didn’t know better, that’s hardly a crime. Now that you realize that I’m really not a righteous or holy man, why do you need my forgiveness?”
Thanks to the Chofetz Chaim, we realize that a universally respected, famous person can be incredibly humble. And Moshe was even more humble than this! If we want to learn to shy away from honor instead of chasing it, we merely need to consider these paragons of humility.
Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Text Copyright © 2002 Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Director of Project Genesis.