Humility And Prophecy: Hearing the Word of God


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:59 p.m.
Torah reading: Numbers 8:1-12:16
Haftara: Zechariah 2:14-4:7
Sabbath ends: 9:07 p.m.

 They say there are no more prophets. The Rabbis agreed that the last biblical prophets were Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. Many people would like to obtain prophecy nowadays, but we see from Beha’alotecha, the Torah portion this week, prophecy is most accessible to those who do not want it. One needs the correct intention to be given the honor of prophecy, and this intention can be most accurately described as humility.

Our greatest prophet, Moses, is described this week as “immensely humble, more so than any person on earth.” [Numbers 12:3]. He is also the only person to speak with God “mouth to mouth, clearly and not in riddles” [Num. 12:8].

This is evident when Eldad and Medad are publicly prophesying in the camp. In response, Joshua tells Moses that they should be stopped immediately and punished. Moses responds by saying “Are you zealous for me? If only everyone could be given prophecy” [Num. 11:29]. Moses idealistically wants everybody to have prophecy because he is concerned with the societal benefit and not with the self-awareness of his being holy.

The idea that humility must precede prophecy is not only applicable to Moses. Eldad and Medad, too, portray a quality of humility. These are the two men that stayed behind when Moshe called for the 70 elders to come to the Tent to receive prophecy. The book of Sifre suggests that they stayed behind because they did not want to push themselves forward as prophets. Their humility was rewarded. The text says that “God gave some of his spirit to the 70 men, when the spirit rested on them, they prophesized, and did not so again” [Num. 11:25]. The next verse states that Eldad and Medad stayed behind and “the spirit rested upon them” [Num. 11:26], suggesting that, unlike the other elders, their prophecy continued; a poetic reward for their humility.

Similarly, the story of Miriam and Aaron speaking lashon hara (inappropriate and sinful speech) about Moses can be attributed to a lack of humility. The conversation begins with a statement regarding Moses’ wife and the text then skips to them saying, “Was it only Moses that God speaks to? Doesn’t he speak to us as well?” [Num. 12:2]. The jump in conversation reveals a lot about the nature of lashon hara. The fact that they end with a generalized complaint proves that the purpose in speaking of Moses’ wife was to get to the generalization. Though lashon hara may start with a detail, which one can argue is helpful rather than hurtful, the conversation ends up concluding with an inappropriate generalization about the person, which is never helpful. Engaging in lashon hara entails putting yourself in a higher position than the person you are speaking about. Moses does not respond to Miriam’s words about him but rather to her illness, saying, “Please, God, heal her now” [Num. 12:13]. His concerns are for others and not himself.

It is interesting that this sibling encounter occurs in the same Torah portion where Moses first complains about the burden of the Jewish people, telling God, “Did I conceive this entire nation, or did I give birth to it, that you say to me ‘carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries an infant?” [Num. 11:12].

Moses’ humility allowed him to view the whole Jewish people as his family. Though he is acting very idealistically, his siblings may have interpreted such behavior as a separation from them. The nature of what they said about Moses may reflect that. It is commonly thought that Miriam was mentioning the fact that Moses had stopped sleeping with his wife because he had to always be in a state of purity to hear the word of God. Miriam’s saying that Moses had separated himself from his wife might also reflect that she also felt he had separated himself from her and Aaron.

When Moses heard about Eldad and Medad, he wished that everyone could have prophecy. Miriam and Aaron’s jealousy, caused by their lack of humility, made them insult Moshe’s prophecy and attempt to equalize the playing field by saying “Didn’t God speak to us as well?” [Num. 12:2]: Their concern was for their status as prophets, whereas Moses’ concern was for the societal benefit of prophecy. When one is concerned more with benefiting oneself than society, such intentions break with God. To be humble, to be worthy of prophecy, the emphasis and importance must be on God, rather than  yourself. Only at this point can one obtain God’s gift of prophecy.

The fact that humility is the only characteristic explicitly attributed to Moses may mean that it should not only be a virtue for aspiring prophets, but for all of us who want to hear the word of God.  

Benjamin Wolf Telushkin is a student at S.A.R High School.