At the end of Parshas Behaaloscha (Numbers 12) we read of the incident where Miriam and Aaron, the elder siblings of Moses, speak critically of Moses. As prophets themselves, they believed that they understood the demands that Moses' position placed upon him, and they believed that this did not justify his actions. (The exact nature of their criticism of Moses is left extremely vague in the text, and is discussed in the commentaries.) God Himself intervenes, and speaks to Miriam and Aaron (12:6-8):
And He said: "Hear now My words: when one of you is a prophet, I Hashem, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. This is not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted in all My house. I speak to him mouth to mouth, in a vision without riddles; and he sees the image of Hashem. Why then are you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?"
These verses teach us one of the most basic and central principles of Judaism, the supremacy of the prophecy of Moses. Maimonides included this principle as the seventh of his thirteen foundations of Judaism. Maimonides opens his discussion of this principle with this basic summary:
The Seventh Foundation is the prophecy of Moses our Teacher. This means to believe that he is the father of all the prophets, both those that preceded him and those who arose after him; all of them were below his level. He was chosen from all of Mankind, he attained a greater knowledge of God than any other man ever attained or ever will attain, and he rose from the level of man until he attained the level of the angels and, being on the level of an angel, there remained no screen that he did not penetrate and nothing physical hindered him. He was devoid of any flaw, big or small. His powers of imagination, and the sensual perceptions were nullified by his understanding and the power of his desires was silenced, leaving him with pure intellect.
Maimonides goes on to detail how the prophecy of Moses differed in several basic ways from that of all other prophets.Much of his discussion is based upon the verses that we just quoted above.
But how did Moses achieve this exalted level? What was it about Moses that set him apart, not only from the rest of his generation, but from all mankind for all time? How was he alone able to reach such a great height of understanding and knowledge of God?
The answer to this question can be found just a few verses earlier (12:3):
And the man Moses was very humble, more than any human on the face of the earth.
While Moses had many virtuous traits, his central virtue was humility. It was this that set him apart from all others, and it was this virtue that enabled him to become the greatest prophet of all time, and the one who would receive the Torah from God.
In the first mishna of Pirkei Avos, the mishna opens by saying:
משה קבל תורה מסיניMoses received the Torah from Sinai.
Now, of course, Moses did not receive the Torah from Sinai. Moses received to Torah from God. Sinai was simply the location where this happened. Why then does it say that he received the Torah from Sinai? This question is addressed by a number of commentaries on Pirkei Avos, including the Tiferes Yisrael (R' Yisrael Lifshitz d.1860), who writes:
ר"ל משה שהיה עניו מאד, עי"ז קבל התורה שנמשלה למים שמניחין מקום גבוה ומתאספים בנמוך (כתענית ד"ז א'). ולכן קבל התורה מסיני הנמוך בהרים (כמגילה כ"ט א'). להורות דרק ע"י ענוה מקור לכל המדות ישרות יזכה אדם לתורהThe mishna wishes to tell us that it was because of Moses' great humility that he received the Torah, for the Torah is compared to water that flows away from the high spots and gathers in low areas (as it says it the Talmud, Taanis 7a). This is why Moses received the Torah at Sinai, the lowest of the mountains (as it says in the Talmud, Megilla 29a). This is to teach us that it is only through humility, which is the source of all upright character traits, that a person can merit to Torah.
We see that this idea is not only relevant to the initial reception of the Torah by Moses at Mt. Sinai, but is relevant for all of us. Proper Torah study is a reenactment of the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and no success in Torah study is possible without humility. This principle is a basic theme in Jewish thought, found repeated in innumerable ways in innumerable sources. Torah can only come through humility.
Why is humility so important for Torah study? There are many layers to the answer to this question.
On one level, of course, we know that excessive pride and arrogance can be barriers to understanding in secular studies as well as Torah. A degree of humility is necessary for success in all forms of scholarship and this is also true for Torah. R' Eliyahu HaKohen of Smyrna (d.1729) addresses this aspect in his classic mussar work, Sheivet Mussar (ch. 52):
Know and perceive how the Torah remains with one who is lowly (מי שדעתו שפלה עליו), and not by one who is prideful. One who is lowly will not be ashamed to say, "I do not understand," and his teacher will then review with him until he understands it. Also, if he sees that someone who is his social inferior knows more than him, then he will go to learn from him. Similarly, because his humility enables him to recognize his own ignorance, he continually reviews his studies, and this causes his Torah to stay with him.
The opposite is true of the prideful person. His pride causes him to hide his own ignorance, and all the more so does it prevent himself from going to study by someone who is his social inferior, even if he recognizes that the other person has the wisdom of Solomon! Similarly, the prideful person is not motivated to study, because his pride makes him incapable of recognizing his ignorance.
This brings us to a somewhat deeper understanding of the connection between humility and Torah. For not only does pride prevent one from properly studying the Torah on a practical level, it also can cause one to come to false conclusions in his studies. We all recognize the role that our personal biases can play in our understanding and interpretation of what we see and know, in all aspects of life. Pride is the ultimate bias, and Torah knowledge is particularly susceptible to being corrupted in this way. The study of Torah must be done in a state of kabbala - literally, reception - in which the student opens his mind to receive the Torah without imposing his own ideas upon it. The goal of Torah study is only to truly understand what God is teaching us. To study for the sake of true understanding is, as R' Chaim Volozhiner (d.1821) explains (Ruach Chaim 6:1), the essence of studying Torah lishma - "for its own sake." The prideful person, however, will inevitably impose his own thoughts upon the Torah, consciously or unconsciously, thereby creating a corrupted version of the Torah.
The Talmud (Taanis 7a) states, "One who studies Torah for its own sake, his Torah becomes an elixir of life for him... and one who studies the Torah not for its own sake, it becomes for him an elixir of death." One who studies the Torah for its own sake, allowing the Torah to impose its form upon his mind, experiences the true Torah, which is an elixir of life. The one, however, who studies the Torah without truly striving to understand, creates something else, which is not truly Torah at all, and which is therefore an elixir of death.
This brings us to the deepest, and most basic, level of understanding the necessity of humility for Torah. For ultimately, the Torah is not of this world. The Torah is gift, it is given to us by God, not just once at Mt. Sinai, but continually, every time we study it. To truly succeed in Torah, each of us must emulate Moses himself, in his most basic character trait, humility. For God gives His gift of Torah only to those who truly open themselves to Him, who have eliminated all the various internal barriers of the ego that separate us from Him. (See Ruach Chaim 1:1.) This is what Maimonides is saying in the passage we quoted earlier, that Moses had reached a level in which "there remained no screen that he did not penetrate and nothing physical hindered him."