Humility and its Limits

And He said, “I am the L-rd of your father, the L-rd of Avraham, the L-rd of Yitzchak, and the L-rd of Yaakov.” And Moshe hid his face because he feared to look upon the L-rd. (Sefer Shemot 3:6)

I. Moshe’s first prophecy

Parshat Shemot describes Moshe’s first prophecy. Moshe observes a bush that is aflame but not consumed. He turns from his path to observe this strange phenomenon. Hashem calls out to Moshe from the midst of the bush. He tells Moshe that he stands on sacred ground and he must remove his shoes. He tells Moshe that He is the L-rd of his father and the L-rd of the Patriarchs. Moshe hides his face. The above passage explains that he feared to look upon Hashem. 

Hashem is not material. Moshe’s fear is not to be understood literally. One cannot see Hashem. What was his fear? Rambam – Maimonides – explains:

This we say. It is not fitting for one to burst forth into this great and revered subject [ – understanding Hashem and His ways – ] with an initial understanding, without [first] preparing with [study] of the sciences and knowledge. And one should refine one’s character in every appropriate manner. One should constrain one’s desires and fantasies.

When one has studied the true and proper introductions and understands them, knows the rules of logic and analysis, knows the methods of guarding against confused reasoning, then one should approach investigation in this area.  

One should not accept as conclusive one’s initial understanding. One should not direct and apply initially one’s thoughts to understand the Creator. Rather, one should be deferential, exercise restraint, hold back, and proceed gradually. 

This is the idea that is stated, “And Moshe hid his face for he feared to look upon the L-rd.”…. [Moshe,] peace be upon him, was praised for this. And [Hashem] caused to flow upon him from His pleasantness and goodness to the extent that he was brought to this [exalted level] that in the end it is said of him, “He looked upon the image of Hashem.” Our Sages, of blessed memory, said that this was the reward for hiding his face from looking upon the L-rd at the outset. (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, volume 1, chapter 5)

II. The study of the sublime

In his comments, Rambam explains that one must carefully prepare to engage in the study of Hashem and his ways. He identifies three required preparations. One must master the sciences and areas of knowledge that are prerequisites to the study of Hashem. One must perfect one’s character. This includes vanquishing one’s material desires and fantasies. Finally, one must master the principles and rules of logical analysis. In short, immense knowledge is necessary and also one must address the common sources of error in analysis – emotional bias or prejudice and imperfect reasoning. One must overcome the basic limitations imposed by one’s humanity. 

Rambam further explains that after fulfilling these preconditions, one should not hastily enter into the study of Hashem. One must proceed slowly. One achieves understanding through a series of steps. Each step is the foundation for the next.

In the comments that follow those above, Rambam explains that if one enters into the study of Hashem without the necessary prerequisites or if one is hasty in the study, the conclusions will reflect the lack of preparation or the carelessness of the study. Inevitably, the results will be flawed.

III. Moshe’s restraint – Two opinions

Rambam’s comments express the opinion of Ribbi Yonatan in Mesechet Berachot. Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah disputes this position: 

It is taught in the name of Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah: Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moshe, “When I wanted [to reveal Myself] you did not want [to look upon Me]. Now that you want [to look upon Me] I do not want [to reveal Myself].” (Mesechet Berachot 7a)

Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah contends that Moshe acted improperly in hiding his face. He further explains that because Moshe did not take full advantage of this opportunity, some degree of understanding was withheld from Him.  

How should we understand this dispute? How can we explain Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah’s position? Moshe judged himself unprepared to delve deeper into the nature of Hashem and the wisdom of his actions. He acted with the appropriate restraint. How can he be criticized for his caution?

And Hashem said to Moshe: I have certainly seen the affliction of My nation in Egypt. And I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their suffering. (Sefer Shemot 3:8)

IV. Hashem’s invitation

The dispute between these Sages is difficult to explain. Let us consider two tentative explanations.

There is a stark contrast in these Sages' views of Moshe’s initial prophecy. According to Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah, Hashem told Moshe that He wanted to reveal Himself to him in this prophecy. The prophecy was an invitation from Hashem. He invited Moshe to enter into an investigation. In the above passage, Hashem tells Moshe that He is aware of Bnai Yisrael’s suffering. He continues and tells Moshe that He will redeem His nation from bondage and take them into the Land of Cana’an. After this, Hashem tells Moshe about his role in the coming redemption. Only when Hashem tells Moshe of his role does Moshe begin to question and seek a clearer understanding of his mission. When Hashem told Moshe that He was aware of His nation’s suffering Moshe was not moved to question. He did not ask Hashem to share insight into His ways. Why did Hashem allow His people to be oppressed by the Egyptians? Why were the innocent allowed to suffer? Why did Hashem allow guiltless infants to be drowned in the Nile? Moshe was silent. According to Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah, Moshe was invited by Hashem to delve into these questions. Moshe did not begin to question until Hashem presented his role. 

Ribbi Yonatan does not ascribe to the prophecy an invitation. Hashem revealed to Moshe a specific message. Moshe could have initiated more extensive dialogue and tried to learn more about Hashem and His ways. But Hashem did not beckon to Moshe to enter into this more extensive dialogue.

Perhaps, Ribbi Yonatan and Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah disagree on the nature of this prophecy. Perhaps, they differ over the nature of prophecy, in general. According to Ribbi Yonatan, this prophecy – perhaps, all prophecies – is an invitation to the prophet to enter into dialogue with Hashem. The prophet must be cautious. He must take care to not enter into a dialogue for which he is not emotionally and intellectually prepared. Neither should the prophet decline the invitation, forsake the unique opportunity. 

Ribbi Yonatan does not ascribe this element of invitation to this prophecy. Perhaps, he would not ascribe it to prophecy, in general. The prophet receives a message or direction from Hashem. He must seek to understand it. But he must also be aware of the limits of his capacity and not overreach. 

And he said, “Please My Master, send with one who is fit to be sent.” And Hashem was angered with Moshe. And He said, “Is not Aharon your bother the Levi? I know that he can certainly speak. Also, he comes to greet you and he will see you and rejoice.” (Sefer Shemot 4:13-14)

V. Moshe’s humility

Let us consider an alternative explanation of the dispute between these Sages. The pursuit of knowledge requires that one balance two conflicting attitudes. As Rambam explained, one must be humble and aware of one’s limits. However, one must also be courageous and rise to the challenge of contemplating intimidating mysteries and delving into complex issues. Perhaps, these Sages disagree over Moshe’s response to these conflicting considerations. 

Throughout his initial prophecy, Moshe expressed his humility. Hashem told Moshe that he will send him to Egypt and that he will lead Bnai Yisrael out of bondage. Moshe protested. Who is he to plead the cause of the people before Paroh or to lead the people out of Egypt?

Hashem responded to each of Moshe objections. In the above passages, Moshe has exhausted his objections and pleads with Hashem to select another emissary. Now, Hashem is angered. Moshe has acted improperly. Hashem selected Moshe as His messenger. Moshe raised objections; Hashem addressed each. Now, Moshe must accept his mission. He should have suspended his humility. 

VI. Excessive humility 

These passages may explain Ribbi Yonatan’s position and his dispute with Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah. Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah makes an assumption that Ribbi Yonatan disputes. He assumes that Moshe was correct in his assessment of his preparedness for the revelations of the prophecy and the sublime knowledge that it made accessible. Ribbi Yonatan’s position is that Moshe was restrained by an excess of humility. His humility prevented Moshe from accurately assessing his unique preparedness to access the secrets Hashem was prepared to reveal. In short, Ribbi Yonatan assumes Moshe’s assessment of his preparedness was accurate and his restraint appropriate. Only later in his dialogue with Hashem did Moshe’s humility exceed proper boundaries. Ribbi Yehoshua ben Karchah’s position is that Moshe’s self-deprecation asserted itself at the outset of the prophecy and limited Moshe’s interactions with Hashem.

VII. The pursuit of knowledge

The dispute between these Sages illustrates the innate tension in the pursuit of knowledge. One must pursue knowledge with humility. We must recognize that there are questions we cannot answer. Whether studying Talmud, physics, Chumash, or philosophy sometimes one must be satisfied with marveling at the mysteries and restrain oneself from adopting solutions that are simplistic and illusionary. 

One must also have courage. It is difficult to enter into a new or unfamiliar area of study. A Talmud student may be intimidated by the study of Kodshim. A physics student may feel trepidation when contemplating the study of general relativity. Who should not take pause before opening the Critique of Pure Reason or Moreh Nevuchim? One who is restrained by timidity deprives oneself of the opportunity to grow. One must approach knowledge with humility and courage. Study should be systematic. One should proceed in an orderly and measured manner. One should embrace unanswered questions as wondrous mysteries. Finally, one should not be enamored by one’s conclusions. Retain some skepticism. Maintain an open mind.