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Jewish World Review
July 11, 2008
/ 8 Tamuz 5768
It's hard to be humble when you're great
Rabbi Francis Nataf
The perspective of prophecy
In teaching about the many of the figures in Tanach, I often tell my students that Moses is probably the most difficult to comprehend. His spirituality was so far removed from anything that we know, that it is very difficult to have insight into this unique giant. Moreover, Moses' character was quite paradoxical: The Torah tells us that he was greater than anyone else in prophecy as well as in modesty. While we understand that all Jews need to be modest, it may seem strange that the greatest man to walk the face of the Earth could also be the most modest.
Bilaam, the central figure in this week's Bible reading, may give us some insight into Moses' paradox. This, since the Midrash (Sifri 34:10) informs us that Bilaam was really at least as great a prophet as Moses. To those familiar with Bilaam's story this may come as quite a surprise not only doesn't Bilaam appear to be great, he seems to be base as well as foolish (the latter to the point that he is outsmarted by his own donkey).
Perhaps the Midrash is telling us that Bilaam had the same, or greater, potential as Moses. Consequently, Bilaam might have started with the same intellectual capabilities as Moses, as well as a heightened appreciation of the spiritual and moral realms. In theory, with his potential he could have reached the level that Moses reached. There was just one hitch he lacked the requisite modesty needed to use prophecy appropriately.
Without modesty, prophecy is easily misused. It becomes just another talent that can be used to get ahead and, ultimately even for corruption. It is quite clear from Bilaam's interactions with Balak in this week's reading, that Bilaam is quite ready to use his talents for personal gain, thereby defiling them. Once his prophecy lost its holiness and became marketable, it comes as no surprise that Bilaam saw everything as devoid of holiness and pragmatically expendable.
While it is easy to see Bilaam's mistake, it is easier still to appreciate the unusual perspective needed to avoid making his mistake. Bilaam's slogan might have been "It's hard to be humble when you're great". And if Bilaam was as great as indicated by the aforementioned Midrash, we can appreciate his lack of humility. If our own understanding was compared to that of Moses, would we not be tempted to look down at other mortals who did not have such an elevated perspective? Would we not consider the difference between ourselves and others to be very great indeed?
Perhaps, however, the reason we ask such questions is because we share Bilaam's warped perspective. Warped, that is, in an ultimate sense. We rarely examine our perspective on time and space most of us think that ten years is a long time and that ten minutes is a short time. Likewise, we think of a mouse as a small animal and an elephant as large. We take for granted that this is a universally true perspective. If we are to think more carefully, we would realize that from an ant's perspective a mouse is really quite large and from a whale's perspective an elephant is not so big. Once we understand that human perspective is relative and takes for granted that humans are at the center of all existence we may get greater insight into Moses' success as a prophet. As Moses grew to have a greater understanding of G-d, he likely started looking at the world from G-d's perspective. No doubt, while Bilaam also must have understood that G-d's perspective is the correct perspective, his ego prevented him from accepting such a humbling insight. After all, from that point of view a man is very small indeed.
It is likely that Moses knew that he was the greatest man to ever live. What allowed Moses to know this and still be extremely modest was his perspective: If a great person compares himself to other humans, he will probably think very highly of himself. If, however, he sees himself from the perspective of G-d, he would feel quite humbled. To put if differently, even if you are the greatest ant in the world, how great can an ant be? True, man is far superior to an ant on many different levels. Still, it would be difficult to claim that the difference between man and ants is greater then the difference between man and G-d.
Thus it may be no coincidence that the greatest man was also the most humble. True humility comes from an elevated and ultimately truer perspective. If Bilaam's slogan might have been " It's hard to be humble when you're great", the Jewish response would be "It's impossible not to be humble when you're truly great".
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Rabbi Francis Nataf is Educational Director of the Jerusalem-based David Cardozo Academy. Comment by clicking here.
© 2008, Rabbi Francis Nataf