After the passing of Rabbi Yehudah, the second-century sage who edited the Mishnah, his colleagues proclaimed that the age of humility had come to an end. Over a century later, the Babylonian sage Rabbi Yosef offered a correction. “Don’t say humility has died,” he asserted, “because there is I.”1

At first blush, this sounds ironic. Is it possible to boast of humility and remain humble?

Is it possible to boast of humility and remain humble?

Not My Fault

Korach was a Levite who aspired to become high priest. “Moses,” he complained, “you took the leadership, Aaron took the high priesthood, and nothing was left for me!”2 Moses replied, “You . . . [complain] against G‑d . . . what is Aaron that you should complain against him?”3

What did Moses mean? Why shouldn’t Korach complain against Aaron? Aaron filled the position that Korach wanted. Korach had no issue with G‑d. He was jealous of Aaron, the high priest.

Moses obviously meant to say that Aaron didn't assume the high priesthood on his own, but was appointed by G‑d. This is similar to what Moses told those who complained to him and Aaron of hunger: “Of what significance are we? Not against us are your complaints, but against G‑d.”4 G‑d directs all matters, not me. If you want manna, complain to G‑d. If you want to be a high priest, complain to G‑d.

This answer is still somewhat unsettling. Shifting the blame to G‑d is a legitimate argument, but in making it, Moses as much as conceded Korach’s point. Why didn’t Moses defend his brother as the best candidate for the position? Essentially, he told Korach, Aaron wasn’t appointed on merit; he just happened to be G‑d’s choice. Either of you could have been high priest, but G‑d chose Aaron.

Why didn’t Moses defend his brother as the best candidate for the position?

That seems a callous position for Moses to take with respect to his brother. Did he truly not believe Aaron most worthy of the position? Did he truly feel that Korach, who would later be punished by G‑d, was as worthy as Aaron?

Not to My Credit

The short answer is, yes. That is precisely what Moses believed. Not only did Moses believe that of Aaron; he believed it of himself.

Moses was the humblest man on the face of the earth. Yet he knew his own qualities. He was the redeemer of Israel, the greatest prophet who ever lived, the splitter of the sea and the deliverer of heavenly manna. He knew he was the greatest Jew in history, so how could he be so humble?

Winston Churchill, who was not a great fan of his political rival Clement Attlee, is reputed to have said, “Attlee is a very humble man.” After a pause he added, with a twinkle, “Of course, he has so much to be humble about.”

It is easy to be humble when you have nothing to boast of. But Moses was humble although he had much to boast about. How did he maintain a humble image of himself even while acknowledging his amazing talents, giant spirit and colossal achievements (including his own humility)?

Simple. He never took credit for them. He always attributed the credit to G‑d. Suppose you saw a beautiful sculpture. Would you credit the sculptor, or his tool? Of course, the sculptor. The tool is incapable of sculpting anything alone. The talent and achievement belong to the sculptor.

Moses saw himself as G‑d’s tool. He was a walking repository of talents and spirit that G‑d used to perform miracles and deliver the Torah. When Moses received a compliment, he knew inwardly that he didn’t deserve it. Absent the talents given him by G‑d, Moses knew he would have been unable to accomplish anything. Credit must be given to G‑d, who deposited these talents in Moses.

Further, Moses supposed that if anyone else were given the same set of talents, he could possibly have accomplished even more than Moses did. And since this was possible, Moses gave everyone the benefit of this particular doubt. This is how Moses was able to remain humble even as he accomplished monumental things.

Moses knew his brother well. He knew that Aaron saw life the same way he did. Aaron didn’t take credit for the high priesthood. He saw himself merely as G‑d’s choice—and G‑d could have chosen anyone. Surely Aaron knew that he was well suited for the position, but he was suited to the position only because of the spiritual gifts that G‑d bestowed on him. He was no more than a tool in the hands of a sculptor. He took no credit for himself.

He was no more than a tool in the hands of a sculptor. He took no credit for himself.

We now see what Moses meant when he said, “Your complaint is not with Aaron, but with G‑d.” Moses was not implying that Korach was as worthy as Aaron. On the contrary. G‑d selected Aaron, because Aaron was the best candidate for the high priesthood. But Korach wanted to be equally suited to the position, and Moses could sympathize with that. Rather than deride Korach, he reminded him that it wasn’t Aaron of whom Korach was jealous, but Aaron’s spiritual abilities, which were given by G‑d. Don’t get angry with Aaron, he said. Take it up with G‑d, who made Aaron what he is.

Humility Is Also a Gift

This helps us understand how Rabbi Yosef was able to “boast” of his humility. Moses and Aaron viewed their talents as G‑d-given, and could therefore display them without growing haughty. Rabbi Yosef saw his humility as G‑d-given, and could therefore display it without growing haughty. It wasn’t to boast that Rabbi Yosef presented himself as humble, but to serve as an example for others. Humility is a gift, he wanted to say, and we can all be recipients of that gift.


We are each talented at something, and when we excel we receive compliments. In the privacy of our hearts we know we didn’t work all that hard, and what seemed monumental to the next person actually came easily to us. This is not a reason to think highly of ourselves, but a reason to grow humble.

It is polite to accept the praise, but inwardly we ought to wince, because it is not we who deserve it. We must remember that we are not better than the next person. Had G‑d endowed the other person with this talent, who knows how much more that person could have accomplished? And just as Aaron used his gifts to serve G‑d, so too each of us may be a “high priest,” using the talents bestowed on us to serve and glorify the One who gave them.5