The Humility of Moses Towards All the Children of Israel
The meaning of the verse that states, “Moses went and he spoke these words to all of Israel” (Deuteronomy 31:1) needs to be understood. In fact, on the day of his death Moses stood before the Jewish people and explained the Torah to them. Consequently, since he was always with them, where did he go?
There exists yet another difficulty. It is written, “I can no longer go out and come in, for the L-RD has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan’ ” (v.2), and Rashi explains in the name of the Gemara (Sotah 13b) that this refers to the words of Torah: The instructions that Moses received had escaped him, and the sources of wisdom had been closed to him. This demands an explanation. Actually, Moses later gave them the mitzvah of the Hakhel (which takes place at the end of the Shmita year [Deuteronomy 31:12]), after which he again lavished his advice on them, wrote them a poem (v.22), and blessed everyone before his death (ibid. 33:1). All this seems to clearly show that no sources of wisdom had been closed to Moses, and that on the contrary, all such sources retained their full strength for him.
We will attempt to explain this point. We know that the Torah is extremely strict concerning relationships between people. The Torah especially punishes lapses in this area, for people find it difficult to humble themselves and ask forgiveness of others (without mentioning that those who have been wronged also have difficulty forgiving affronts to their honor), and they risk fighting to defend it, often engaging in a machloket (dispute). Note that this word is composed of letters that form the initials of the phrase Maka Charon Likui Kelalah Toevah (“Blows, anger, plagues, curses, abomination” – Bamidbar Rabba 18:10). One who engages in a dispute thus brings problems upon the entire community. Moreover, the one in the wrong should also seek forgiveness from his fellow (Yoma 85b). We see, therefore, that relationships among people are very important.
This was what the verse was referring to when it stating, “Moses went and he spoke.” Moses was the most humble of men (Numbers 12:3), friendly with everyone, to the extent that on the day of death, instead of occupying himself with personal affairs and his spiritual state, he went from one place to another, from one person to another, and from the beginning of the camp to its end in order to take care of the needs of the community, material and spiritual alike. He wanted to speak with everyone to encourage them to follow the right path, being careful that his words emanated from his heart so that they would enter the hearts of his listeners (see Berachot 6a). In addition, he saw no affront to his honor in doing this. Quite to the contrary, if he succeeded in making an impression even on the least significant of the people, that constituted his victory and his honor.
This is a lesson that every Rav should learn from Moses. If he believes that one of his students hasn’t come to class as normal, it is proper that he should go find him and try to persuade him to have a better attitude. It is a mark of greatness and demonstrates an absence of pettiness for him to put the effort into going and getting someone, and the Gemara speaks several times of one of the Amoraim who wasn’t at the Beit Midrash the day before (see Bava Kama 20a). We could be surprised that here it is written vayidaber (“and he spoke”), yet as we know, this word denotes a harsh response (Tanhuma Tzav 1). Why then did Moses use harsh language? It is because, according to what we have seen, the very fact that he bothered to go and find everyone without taking his honor into account is a very difficult thing for an ordinary man to do, and when such a man observes all of Moses’ humility, this penetrates his heart and he draws a lesson from it.
To that which we have said up to now, I would like to add the following idea that I came across during my readings. In that which concerns Moses, the fact that he mingled with the Jewish people was a type of “descent in order to ascend” (Makot 7b). This means that being concerned with the most ordinary of people was considered by Moses as uplifting, since he raised them towards the royal path, elevating himself by so doing and bestowing merit to the community (see Perkei Avoth 5:21), all this in order not to arrive at pride. The words “Moses went” recalls the expression “Go, descend” (Exodus 19:24; 32:7), for when Moses once again descended from the mountain towards the people, it was a “descent in order to ascend.” On the mountain, Moses received sublime messages, the only human being to have known them, as it is written, “You ascended on high, you have taken captives” (Psalms 68:19). Yet because of the fact that G-d told him, “Go, descend. Then you shall ascend,” shows that this descent was necessary in order to again ascend even higher.
Consequently, as I wrote elsewhere, by having a positive influence on even the most doubtful of the people, Moses earned us a Yom Kippur that is a day of forgiveness for the Children of Israel. He ascended a second time to receive the second tablets (Tanhuma Tisa 31), and it was by Moses’ merit, he who is the great defender of the Children of Israel, that each year they can come closer to G-d on Yom Kippur in asking forgiveness for all their sins.
Let us say at present that even if the sources of wisdom had been closed to Moses on the day of his death, in any case his heart was still filled with humility (which he demonstrated by going, through his own initiative, to each person, even the most ordinary). This allowed him to continue to reprimand the Children of Israel, to instruct them on how to live, and to bless them before his death, all so that they could learn humility from him as well. Among other things, he taught them the mitzvah of the Hakhel, which takes place at the end of the Shmita year. Now the instructions concerning the Shmita year were given on Mount Sinai, a mountain that, as we know, had greatly humbled itself (Bereshith Rabba 99). Thus everyone learned humility from Moses, who was humble like Mount Sinai and who had received the Torah from it (Perkei Avoth 1:1). Thus it would be known that Torah is acquired by humility (ibid 6:4).
The Sages have said, “What connection is there between the Shmita year and Mount Sinai?” (Torat Kohanim and Rashi, beginning of Parsha Behar). We have already explained concerning this parsha that the Shmita year’s goal is to teach humility, for in that same year a master and his servant are equal, and the master makes the servant into his master. Consequently, even though the sources of wisdom were closed for Moses, his humility pushed him to go from one person to the other in order to bring everyone closer to Torah and wisdom. With kindness he taught them love for others and the mitzvah of the Shmita year (which is connected to humility), all this precisely before his death in order that we may remember it for all the generations to come.
This shows us just to what extent humility should go. Even though Moses had lost his strength and the sources of wisdom had been closed to him, his humility had given him back his strength and wisdom, to the point that he wrote a poem for Israel, that he wrote the Torah down, and that he blessed them before his death. Actually, no decree can stand against humility and self-abasement, which also includes the act of bestowing merit to the community. As with all great character traits, humility is applicable to all men in every generation.