A Jewish View: On Humility and Transcendence

MenorahFrom time to time it is good to listen to faith leaders from other religions explain the meaning of their sacred documents. We read as one Rabbi unpack a selection from the Hebrew scriptures, Tanakh, after the letters of the first three books (what Westerners call Pentateuch). Here, Rabbi Shoshana Cohen explains a perspective on humility and transcendence leading to the totally utter otherness of the Divine.

On Humility and Transcendence

One of the narratives of the Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh contains the story of Miriam, Aaron and Moses, where, in response to the murmurings of his siblings Moses is described as humble, “the man Moses was more humble than any person on the face of the earth.” In contrast to his siblings, and all other prophets, Moses speaks directly to God, “mouth to mouth I speak to him” says God. Speaking directly to God, knowing and fulfilling God’s will directly is connected here to the characteristic of humility. What is the connection between these two conditions, direct contact with God and humility?

The theme of humility, humbleness is not exclusive to the end of the scripture, in fact it is a theme that threads its way through the entire section and in almost every instance relates to a particular kind of relationship with God and the divine will. The scripture is an invitation to explore the value of humility and its call to us as people, in our relationship to the divine and to the world around us.

The scripture begins with the commandment to build the menora –

Now this was how the lamp-stand was made, out of hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lamp-stand. (Num 8:4)

According to the midrash the word “this,” (ze) signifies the fact that this was one of the things that God showed Moses how to do directly. For the Rabbinic reader the word “this” (ze) refers to God pointing with a finger and saying “this is how to do it.” In this manner the verse “this (ze) is my God and I will praise Him” in Ex 15:2 is read as a literal revelation at the Sea. But for our purposes, we can see that in contrast to other pieces in the Mishkan (dwelling, Temple) which required “maase hoshev” creativity and ingenuity on the part of Bezalel and others, the menorah is made according to explicit divine instructions, with no human creativity or interference.

The appointment of the Levites and their continued work is described in a similar way in the following section:

Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation of the Israelites did with the Levites accordingly; the Israelites did with the Levites just as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning them. 21 …22 Thereafter the Levites went in to do their service in the tent of meeting in attendance on Aaron and his sons. Just as the Lord had commanded Moses concerning the Levites, so they did with them. (Num 8:20-22 passim)

That is the work of the Levites (and the Priests for that matter) is to precisely fulfill the divine command without question and without creativity or change. We can see this in the life and work of Aaron himself, who is meant to continue to do Gods work in the Mishkan (dwelling, Temple) even when he is in mourning for his sons. That is the personal feelings of the Priests and Levites are meant to be sublimating the face of the divine will. The Levitical and priestly work is in that sense the epitome of humility.

This idea, this call to humility, this notion holiness happens on earth as a result of human’s unquestioning obedience to a transcendent God can often be difficult for us. We tend to prefer leaders who argue with God – Abraham at Sodom or Mosses after the Golden Calf than leaders who blindly obey divine commands. We might say that we prefer our leaders bold rather than humble and we prefer our God to be humble rather than all powerful.

But perhaps there is something lost when we no longer expect humility from our leaders and authority from God. While it can be challenging to contemporary thinking folks, the belief in a God who is transcendent, who is not us, who demands things from us is one of the most powerful tools we have against self aggrandizement and even moral ambiguity. To be humble in the face of God is to know that there are things that we do not know, it is to practice doing the will of others before our own, and to attempt to put the needs of the world before our personal needs. This is what it means to be humble like Moshe and this is what it means to live a life according to the will of God. As the prophet Micah said, to live a life of humility is to walk with God.



*Rabbi Shoshana Cohen is senior faculty and research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute where she serves as rabbi and director of campus engagement at Hevruta, the gap year and mechina program for Americans and Israelis housed at the Institute in Jerusalem.


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