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Jewish Journal

Remaining Humble

Parashat Korah (Number 16:1-18:32)


by Steven Carr Reuben

June 21, 2001 | 8:00 pm

No one likes to be criticized, especially when it comes from someone in your own family. Children hate it when parents tell them how to live their lives. Parents hate it when their own parents tell them how to raise their children. Husbands hate it when their wives criticize how they spend their weekends. No one enjoys being criticized.

So it comes as no surprise that when Moses faces the greatest criticism of his career as a leader this week, he strikes back with all the force he can. And what makes it more than merely idle jealousy is the fact that the one doing the criticism is also a member of his extended family, a man from his own tribe, someone who was part of the leadership elite of the Israelites.

The man, Korah, accuses Moses of arrogance -- the sin of acting as if he is holier than (read -- "more important than") everyone else. He challenges Moses by throwing his own teachings back at him, saying, "How can you act like only you have a special relationship with God and at the same time teach us that all of Israel is 'a kingdom of priests and a holy people'?"

One of the most remarkable aspects of this rebellion was that it cuts to the heart of what is undoubtedly the single most important personality trait that Jewish tradition ascribed to Moses, namely, his humility. In fact, the rabbis of the Talmud remind us that it is written in the Torah itself that Moses was the humblest of men and that his personal humility was one of the main reasons God chose him to become the one who led the Jewish people from slavery to freedom.

Each of us has the tendency to see the best in ourselves and the worst in others. Yet the rabbinic tradition holds up humility as one of the most important qualities that a leader can possess. There is a famous Midrash in which each of us is to imagine that we have two notes from God in our pockets -- one says, "The whole earth was created for my sake," and the other says, "I am but dust and ashes." Each day as different situations arise, we are to reach into our pockets and pull out either one or the other of these notes.

When we begin to act with arrogance or look down upon another, "I am but dust and ashes" will remind us that every human being we encounter has his or her own unique spark of the divine within. When we are beset by doubts and begin to focus on our own human frailties, "The whole earth was created for my sake" will remind us that we, too, are created in the divine image and as such have fundamental worth and value.

The reason that tradition depicted Moses as one of the most humble of all leaders was to serve as a model for each of us in our daily lives. If even Moses, the greatest of all leaders in Jewish history, was able to remain humble and recognize that he was simply a vehicle for God's work in the world, then we too have the obligation to see our hands as God's hands, our eyes as God's eyes, and our hearts as God's heart. Each time we relearn that lesson and recognize God as a power that works through each of us, we may be inspired to encourage those around us to feel better about themselves and to discover their own inner spark of the divine as well.

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