Veha’ish Moshe anav me’od mikol ha’adam asher al-peney ha’adamah.
Moses, however, was very humble, more so than any man on the face of the earth.
Numbers 12:3 is found in Parashah Beha’alotecha, which is the third Torah portion of Numbers, but this verse informs much of what we see in the first three parashiyot of the book of Exodus.
We are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu1 with the verse, “And the woman was pregnant and bore a son; and when she saw that he was good, she concealed him for three months” [Exodus 2:2]. Personally, I know of no mother who looks at her newborn child and concludes that the child is not good – even one with colic. In the case of the captive Israelis, the child would be “good” if the real alternative was drowning the boy in the Nile.
Rabbi Elazar of Worms2 gives us the clue to understanding this text, though anyone who looks at the contiguity of the human soul can see it already. Throughout history, every parent knows that a “good child” is a “quiet child.” How else could a mother hide a child for the first three months of his life! With this in mind, we discover the text says, “And when she saw that he was quiet, she hid him for three months.” According to b.Sotah 13a3, Miriam prophesied that her mother was going to give birth to a son who would deliver Israel from captivity. The story continues that the room was filled with light at his birth, and Amram understood the event to indicate that Miriam’s prophesy was fulfilled.
This is the only view we have [in Torah, that is] of Moshe’s personality as a child. The next scene features him as a man. In Exodus 2:12, we read, “And it came to pass in those day, when Moshe was grown, he went out to his brothers [the Israelis] and he saw an Egyptian man4 [lethally] striking a Hebrew man, one of his brothers.” In the next verse, we see him premeditating his next move. He looks in every direction; when he discovers no one is around to witness, he strikes the Egyptian, kills him, and hides the dead body in the sand.
Most commentators concentrate on Moshe the Murderer, but this is not the case. It doesn’t help when the Biblical text tells us the Egyptian authorities sought to kill him for his deed. Unfortunately, these commentators use Pharaoh’s decree to kill Moshe as a proof that this indeed was murder [as is the usual case, when we listen to the enemies of Israel, we end up listening to the wrong side of the argument]. Instead, we should see Moshe intervening on behalf of the downtrodden – the underdog. Moshe saw an Egyptian striking [to the death] an Israeli citizen. He intervenes and kills the perpetrator in the Israeli’s defense, which is perfectly valid under Torah. The Mekilta d’Rabbi Ishmael indicates this event is proof that Moshe was devoting his whole soul to Israel5; therefore, we are called “his people.6”
In the next scene, Moshe is once again coming to the aid of the underdog. He comes to the aid of a fellow Jew who is being victimized by another Jew. The text tells us, “He went out the next day and saw two Hebrew men fighting. He asked, ‘Why do you strike your fellow ?’ The perpetrator asks, ‘Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you plan to murder me as you murdered the Egyptian?7‘”
Moshe wisely fled, assuming the matter was common knowledge8. He fled across the Red Sea to the land of Midyan, and for the third time, we see Moshe, again, helping the downtrodden. There, as he sat at a well, he saw some shepherds come and drive the seven daughters of Reuel from the well. Moshe intervened, saved them, and even watered their sheep9.
In Exodus 5:22, we see Moshe empathizing with the Israelis as the Egyptians increased their workload. The text says, “Why have you done such evil to this people?” It wasn’t until Moshe cries and complains before Hashem, “You did not rescue Your people,” that Hashem says, “Now you will see what I shall do to Pharaoh.10”
Moshe’s empathetic intercession does not stop here. It continues with the bitter waters of Marah, where Moshe cries out to Hashem even though the people complained against him. Again, the Israelis complain about their one-course diet of manna11, and they cry to Moshe for meat. Here, Moshe’s empathy for the people causes him to cry to Hashem that his death was preferable to watching the crying and the suffering of the people. “And if you will do this for me: please kill me; if I have found favor in Your eyes, then let me not see my12 evil.”
Moshe’s empathy – Moshe’s love for those of low stature made him the prime candidate – the only candidate to lead the people from Mitzrayim [Egypt] to Mt. Sinai, and to the edge of the Promised Land. No other qualified. In fact, Exodus 6:14-27, lists the leaders of the Children of Israel, beginning with the eldest son of Jacob, in a search for a leader. The sons of Reuven were searched13. The tribe of Shimon were tried14. Mattah15 Levi were examined16 and within this tribe, Moshe and Aaron are found to be the ones who will lead Bnei Israel from the land of slavery into the Land of Promise. Interestingly, the genealogical study in this portion of Torah ends.
Torah proves repeatedly that Moshe was very concerned about the welfare of the Jewish people. Therefore, the declaration from Hashem that Moshe was the most humble man on the face of the earth has Moshe’s compassion and empathy at it’s core. Stephanie Slamka wrote a paper, “Humility as a Catalyst for Compassion: The Humility-Compassion Cycle of Helping17,” and in it, she indicates quite nicely that, “humility is the catalyst of empathy, which facilitates compassion.” Consider this: since humility is the catalyst of empathy, and we see in his earliest years – before he became the leader of our nation he already showed great compassion and sympathy for us, he already possessed the trait of humility!
“Humility, that low, sweet root, From which all heavenly virtues18 shoot”
1Heb.: Moses our Teacher.
2R’Elazar of Worms [aka Eleazar ben Judah ben Kalonymus, Eleazar Rokeach, and Eleazar the perfumer] was a mystic and Talmudist who lived in the 11th Century CE.
3Interestingly, on the page before [b.Sotah 12b], Pharaoh’s daughter unknowingly prophesies as well when she speaks to Miriam after retrieving Moshe from the river. She says, “Take [heilichi] this boy.” R’Chama b. R’Chanina says, “Heilichi means ‘ha chelichi,’ which is translated, ‘Here is what belongs to you.’”
4Midrash Tanchuma Shemot § 9 states this Egyptian man was the father of the blasphemer we see in Leviticus 24:10.
5c.f., Mekhilta de R’Shimon bar Yochai Shirata 27:01
7Exodus 2:13-14 [This and many verses, courtesy Artscroll Chumash].
12Rashi comments “their evil” instead of “my evil,” since the Children of Israel as a whole were crying about the lack of meat. Moshe was not complaining.
18And the chief of these are empathy and compassion.