At the Mountain
Humility in the Wilderness
As we mark this Shabbat that is Bamidbar, in the wilderness, we anticipate its transformation into the revelation of Shavuot beginning Saturday evening. It’s hard not to think about the full experience of counting, learning, and marking all the moments that passed between Pesach and Shavuot this year. One of the texts that the Jewish people study during this period is Pirkei Avot.
In thinking of the combination of Shabbat Bamidbar that leads into Shavuot, my mind has been on the first mishnah/teaching of Pirkei Avot which discusses the transmission of Torah, a fitting topic for this weekend:
משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה.
Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the Elders, and the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets transmitted it to the Men of the Great Assembly.
There are a number of things that jump out at us when we look at this text closely but there is one that is particularly important this weekend. Moses is the only link in the chain of transmission for whom the verb receive is used. Joshua doesn’t receive. The Elders, the Prophets, and the Men of The Great Assembly also do not. So, why Moses?
Perhaps you have heard before that Moses’ greatest attribute was his humility. Picking up on this, the chassidic master, the Noam Elimelech of Lizhensk believes (Behar 1) that Moses actually learned it from the example of Mount Sinai. Basing himself off of a midrash that Sinai itself only merited to have Torah revealed on it by lowering itself compared to other mountains, he argues that only a person who lowers themselves in humility can merit to receive Torah.
So when the text in Pirkei Avot tells us that Moses received the Torah from Mount Sinai, don’t think about it as the moment of revelation we learned about back in Exodus. The Noam Elimelech wants us to read that as Moses received Torah like the way Mount Sinai received the Torah. Humble yourself and you will gain wisdom. The lesson is to find strength with the attribute of humility of Mount Sinai and then you can truly receive wisdom.
This Shabbat, we are no longer at the mountain itself, but we are in the desert of Sinai, and perhaps the humility spreads there as well. Being back in the desert is a good time to practice humility, and there are a number of ways to do so. One that I have been working on is when I find myself in a situation where I am forced to make a judgment or a decision, wondering to myself, what if I am wrong about this?
It is a simple ask with complicated answers. Certainly there are times when I end up deciding that I am in the right. In the moments where I have answered differently though, it offers a powerful perspective shift and a reminder that if humility is good enough for Mount Sinai and Moses, then it can be good for us as well.
Shabbat Shalom, Chag Sameach, and see you on the Mountain.