Now the Man, Moses, was very ‘anav’-What Made Moses a Leader of the Ages?

וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד–מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה.

12:3 Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.

What does the Torah mean when it calls Moshe: Anav-meek, humble? Why is the greatest leader of Jewish history and perhaps of human history spoken of as Anav?

Our portion, Behaalotcha, reveals insights into Moshe’s leadership gifts and also his only too human flaws. Let’s look at chapter 11, one of my favorite passages in the Torah. By a study of both the Biblical text and midrashim on verses here we may gain a sense of what great leadership is by which we can measure leaders our time.

In our chapter, the Israelites cry out, complaining that there was nothing to eat besides manna and they want meat and fish and fruits and vegetables like they ate in Egypt. Moses hears their weeping, and the wrath of God flares greatly. In the eyes of Moses this is bad. Moses says to God, “Why have You placed the burden of this entire people upon me. I alone cannot carry this entire nation, for it is too heavy a burden.”

Here is our verse of focus:

וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה אֶת־הָעָם בֹּכֶה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו אִישׁ לְפֶתַח אָהֳלוֹ וַיִּחַר־אַף יְהוָֹה מְאֹד וּבְעֵינֵי מֹשֶׁה רָע:

10. Then Moses heard the people weep throughout their families, every man in the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; and Moses also was displeased.

A Hasidic commentary reflects on the fact that the people are complaining about wanting meat when they are miraculously provided manna which is described in delicious detail in our chapter. The commentary adds an important insight.

“The manna fell in order that each person be equal. There was no difference whether one was poor or rich, and there was no distinction along lines of property. The manna fell equally for everyone. In any case each person complained for his own family, each one thought that his family was special. Surely in each person’s eye, his family was more connected, more important and therefore deserved a greater portion of the manna. Therefore we have the verse, “and Moses was distressed.”

The commentator tries to get into Moshe’s head, explaining his distress:

“For how could it be that one family be superior to another? And how could one family’s connections be regarded as superior above another, for all of them were at Sinai,
and the inheritance of all of them is equal, for the manna fell for all of them, each man at the entrance of his tent.” Iturei Torah, Behaalotcha

The Hasidic commentary looks closely at the verse and presents us Moshe’s dilemma. The phrase “each person at the entrance of his tent:

אִישׁ לְפֶתַח אָהֳלוֹ

is interpreted to mean that each person would stand at the opening of his tent to receive the manna. (It’s as if the manna was delivered like our present day newspaper.) The manna was equally distributed as a gift of God. But the phrase before it suggests the problem perceived by our commentator: Moses heard the people weeping each with his family,

וַיִּשְׁמַע מֹשֶׁה אֶת־הָעָם בֹּכֶה לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָיו

This weeping is really the expression of each family of it’s aggreived sense of privelege. Each family thought it should get a larger portion of manna than it’s neighbor. So while each person would stand at the entrance of his tent to receive his equal portion, the families according to Rashi would gather and cry out about their inadequate portion.

God responds with anger, but the verse describes Moshe’s reaction differently: This grousing over the portions of manna was what distressed Moshe.

What pains Moshe according to this Hasidic commentary is the move by families to see their need as greater than the people as the whole. Moshe’s responsibility as a leader is for the entire people. He defends God’s miracle of the manna and its miraculously fair distribution of it to every member of Israel.

The sense of privelege threatens to overturn the balance God has sought in caring for his people. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes. The leader has the responsibility to resist the pressures of interest groups to upset the fairness and balance of God’s gift.

His distress arises over his awareness that the community will come apart at the seems if he caters to just the interests of those aggrieved families. How will he keep the community together as people react to favors or inequities that will result?

Anavah, the quality that distinguishes Moshe as a person is found in this attribute of his concern for fairness and his authentic concern for each person in his community regardless of status.
Anavah is the ability to resist pressure to curry favor or to tilt to excessive pressure or selfish grievance. It is the abiliity to apportion concern to each person and each part of the community even to those that complain. Anavah is also the quality of a leader who knows that he may be misunderstood by those who cry out for attention or special favor.

Moshe, while discouraged, must work to restore balance and order among his community. The remainder of chapter 11 focuses on Moshe’s inner crisis and God’s effort to remove some of the burden off his shoulder’s by spreading the gift of prophecy to 70 elders. No leader can bear the responsibility alone, so Moshe accepts the help offered by God and by the elders of his community.

One other qualtiy of Anavah shines through at the end of this chapter when Moshe is told by Joshua that two men are prophesying in the camp who were supposed to be with the 70 elders at the Tent. This disturbs Joshua who insists that they be restrained.

Moshe responds to Joshua forcibly:
And Moses said to him, Are you jealous for my sake?  Would  that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!

וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מֹשֶׁה הַמְקַנֵּא אַתָּה לִי וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל־עַם יְהוָֹה נְבִיאִים כִּי־יִתֵּן יְהוָֹה אֶת־רוּחוֹ עֲלֵיהֶם:

One of Moshe’s remarkable characteristics is his lack of jealousy for the gifts of others. For the leader cannot see his position of leadership as priveleged. He cannot curry favor for himself or set himself apart from his people.

Note the expression Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל־עַם יְהוָֹה נְבִיאִים

The emphasis on the word “all”. Moshe at his core respects the dignity of each individual, of each member of his congregation. He is not threatened by the gifts of each of them and wishes that his gifts be extended to all of them by God.

This unselfish, gracious and measured regard for all his people is what makes Moshe a great leader and someone who can be called Anav.

We as a community can learn from the qualities of Moshe’s leadership, but also as students of Torah to be mindful of the need to distribte the bounty of congregational life fairly throughout the congregation. There are many different needs in our community and they should be legitimately served, but we must be careful that no one individual or group is set apart with special treatment or entitlement. Everyone is worthy of the manna, of the nourishment of synagogue life. We should all strive to embrace Moshe’s qualities of fairness and regard for Klal Israel for the entire community and each individual member.

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