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Intellectual Humility

Parshat Bamidbar is generally read the week before Shavuot, motivating the

commentaries to find a thematic link between the parsha and the holiday.

Bamidbar, translated as “in the wilderness,” gets its name from the opening

verse which relates that “God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness of Sinai”

(Bamidbar 1:1). The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7), highlights the juxtaposition

of wilderness and Sinai, and explains the deeper significance of

God giving the Torah in a desert. It suggests that “whoever does not make

himself ownerless [hefker] like a wilderness, cannot acquire wisdom and

Torah.” What does it mean to make oneself ownerless? Chanoch Zundel

ben Yosef, in his commentary on the Midrash, Eitz Yosef, explains that this

teaches that a person needs to be humble enough to learn from all and to

teach all, as Torah cannot be found in an arrogant person.

Pirkei Avot, which is also customarily read before Shavuot, begins with

a tradition of the Torah’s transmission from Sinai through the time of the

early Sages – “Moshe received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to

Yehoshua,” and so on. One of the many oddities of this first Mishnah is its

starting point. We would expect it to state that Moshe received the Torah

from God, but instead we read that he received it “from Sinai” (mi-Sinai).

Why is a mountain, and not God, viewed as the first link in the chain of


The commentaries provide close to a dozen explanations to this question,

but the one with the most moving moral message is provided by

Rabbi Israel Lipschitz in his commentary Tiferet Yisrael. Weaving together

various statements of the Sages, Rabbi Lipschitz suggests that there is a

common thread between Moshe, Torah, and Sinai, and that is the trait of

humility. Moshe, we are told, is the humblest of all people (Bamidbar 12:3).

The Torah, we are told, is compared to water. Water symbolizes humility,

as it abandons its high position and streams downwards until it collects in

lowly places. Sinai was chosen because it was the humblest of mountains.

The fact that Moshe, Sinai, and Torah share the same trait may be

enough to warrant this allusion to humility in the beginning of Pirkei Avot,

but the message is deeper than just an association of nouns. Other than the

person, place, and object, the Mishnah also uses a verb – kibel – meaning,

“to receive.” Moshe was only able to receive the Torah because of his

humility. This Mishnah omits the name of God and highlights Sinai instead,

to reveal the necessity of humility in Torah learning and observance.

Why is humility such an essential trait for acquiring Torah? Humility

not only positively impacts our relationship to God and to others, but

also assists in improving our intellectual abilities. Dr. Liz Mancuso from

Pepperdine University conducts psychological research on the concept of

intellectual humility. Intellectual humility is a more specific construct than

regular humility, as it pertains specifically to ideas, knowledge, beliefs and

opinions, and not to global perceptions of self. People with intellectual

humility accept that their cognitive faculties are not perfect, and that their

perspective may not be accurate. They are not overconfident about their

knowledge, they respect others’ viewpoints, and are willing to revise their

own viewpoints if necessary. The research suggests that people higher in

intellectual humility tend to have wider general knowledge than those who

are intellectually arrogant.

Her explanation for this finding can serve as commentary on another

Mishnah in Pirkei Avot (4:1), “Who is wise? He who learns from everyone.”

Dr. Mancuso explains that intellectual humility is associated with a love

of learning, an openness to ideas, and an ability to learn with and from

others. This includes listening and reflecting on other people’s opinions,

and disagreeing assertively when appropriate, without being aggressive or

prematurely dismissive. Conversely, people who are arrogant tend to be so

preoccupied with their desire to be seen as intelligent that there remains

little cognitive space for focusing on actual ideas. These people are so

distracted by egotistical concerns that they cannot learn and understand


Humility is essential to learning because it allows us to focus on learning,

instead of on our egos. It is essential for accepting and receiving the Torah.

On the humblest mountain of Sinai, the humblest man, Moshe, received

the Torah, a paradigmatic representation of humility. To emphasize the

point, all this took place in the “ownerless” wilderness.

Intellectual humility is not only desirable; it also facilitates our ability

to receive and learn Torah. May we all feel motivated to acquire this.

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