"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907
"Moses Pleading with Israel" by Providence Lithograph Company, ca. 1907

In Moses’ self-doubt, a great lesson in humility

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The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 6:1–8:36

Though the first five chapters of the book of Leviticus are addressed to the Israelite public, the next two chapters, which start this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, are directed to the officiating priests. Most of the focus is on the various types of sacrifices and offerings that are required.

There are many different kinds of sacrifice that the priest is obligated to perform:

Olah: burnt offering

Mincha: meal offering

Shelamim: peace offering

Chatat: sin offering

Asham: guilt offering

All of these sacrifices play specific roles in ancient Israelite worship, but the first one, the olah, is the most comprehensive and seemingly important. With this daily offering, every part of the animal — flesh, bones, blood — must be consumed by fire at the altar and sent up in smoke to God.

During this ritual of sacrifice, the priest is dressed in a fine linen garment with linen breeches. But after the olah has burned completely, the priest “shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.” (Leviticus 6:4)

The first act of the priest every morning is to put on ordinary clothes and remove the ashes of the previous night’s sacrifice. As one Hasidic commentator argues, this ensures that the priest never forgets his link to ordinary people who spend their days in simple and mundane pursuits.

But it also has an inner, spiritual purpose. According to Bachya ibn Pakuda, an important medieval rabbinic thinker, the change of clothing and the carrying of ashes are performed by the priest “in order to humble and remove the haughtiness from his heart.”

No one, not even a priest observing one of his religion’s most essential rituals, should ever think of himself as better than anyone else.

Humility is a highly important Jewish virtue that has ancient roots in the Torah. When God tells Moses through a burning bush that he has been chosen to serve as a human surrogate in order to liberate the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt, the prophet says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

Like another prophet, Jeremiah, Moses is not very enthusiastic about his call to service. Both men initially offer words of protest to their respective charges, but the reason for Moses’ reluctance is qualitatively different from that of the later prophet. Jeremiah feels oppressed by the isolation and scorn he experiences in the prophetic role. Moses questions his own sense of identity.

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? When people, institutions or conditions compel us to take on the mantle of leadership — and force us to confront seemingly insurmountable obstacles — it can be a discomforting experience. When the call comes directly from God, it can be even more challenging.

Some run away from that challenge; others come to accept the leadership role, but with great resistance, even disdain, like Jeremiah.

Yet there is a third response, and it is exemplified by Moses, through words of radical humility.

When called by God, Moses doesn’t question the order. He questions himself.

In the presence of God, and gripped by the first moments of the prophetic call, Moses can’t help but wonder why God has chosen him to lead the Israelites from slavery to freedom. What has Moses done to merit God’s attention? Moses takes off his sandals, shields his eyes, questions his own worthiness as a leader and his significance as a man.

So who exactly is Moses? Is he a great leader and an invaluable person, or is he a self-deprecating pawn in God’s cosmic plan? There is a spiritual tension in both the Bible and the later rabbinic tradition on these matters, not just for Moses, but for other key figures and leaders, as well.

For instance, Abraham, who boldly challenges God’s judgment and capacity for mercy during the Sodom and Gomorrah episode, says about himself elsewhere, “I … am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27)

And David, who defeats a giant, commands an army and rules an empire, exclaims with dynamic and stark self-deprecation, “I am a worm, less than human.” (Psalms 22:7)

Abraham and David, like all humanity, are born in the image of God. Yet they, like Moses, distinguish themselves from most other people in the way that they perceive themselves. While they are patriarchs, kings and prophets, they are also acutely aware of where they stand and who they are: flesh-and-blood creatures bound by limitations and mortality.

No matter how successful any of us are, and irrespective of how highly we may come to be regarded by our roles or in our lives, this is a vital Jewish lesson to remember.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City. He is also the author or editor of several books including "Gonzo Judaism" and "God at the Edge."