We read in Parashat Shemot of Moshe’s initial refusal to accept the mission assigned to him by God to confront Pharaoh and demand that he free Benei Yisrael.  At one point in his exchange with God at the burning bush, Moshe expresses his fear that Benei Yisrael would not believe his claim that he was sent by the Almighty to free them (4:1).  In response, God “equips” Moshe with supernatural acts that he would perform to prove his authenticity.  These included Moshe’s hand becoming leprous, and then being instantly healed (4:6-7).

Rashi (4:6), based on the Midrash Tanchuma, famously viewed Moshe’s leprosy as a punishment of sorts.  Moshe doubted Benei Yisrael’s faith, assuming that they would disregard his prophecy and deny his claim to have received a prophetic message.  These allegations constituted a form of lashon ha-ra – negative speech – which is punishable with tzara’at, and thus Moshe’s hand contracted leprosy.

Rav Amnon Bazak noted that Moshe’s “punishment” could also be understood differently.  We find two instances in Tanakh where tzara’at served as a punishment for placing oneself on too high a pedestal, assuming a position of stature that he or she did not deserve.  Miriam contracted tzara’at for challenging Moshe’s unique status and insisting that he was on no higher a level than she was: “Did the Lord speak only with Moshe?  Did He not also speak with us?” (Bamidbar 12:2).  Centuries later, the Judean king Uziyahu was stricken with tzara’at after assuming for himself the right to serve as kohen gadol and offer incense in the Beit Ha-mikdash(Devarim Hayamim II 26:16-21).  The common denominator between these two instances oftzara’at was that the victims failed to accept their current standing and assumed for themselves a higher stature than they rightfully deserved.  They were therefore stricken with tzara’at and forced to live in isolation, symbolic of the lowest possible level of prominence.

Rav Bazak noted that Moshe here failed in the precise opposite direction.  He assumed he was incompetent for the job assigned to him, that he could not possibly serve as God’s prophet and convince the people of the divine message.  Whereas Miriam and Uziyahu saw themselves on a higher plane than where they really were, Moshe viewed himself on too low a plane.  All three were stricken with tzara’at because they all failed to see themselves as they truly were.  Moshe, of course, received a far lighter punishment – only his hand was afflicted, and only for a brief period of time – because his mistake was far less severe than that of Miriam or Uziyahu.  Selling oneself short and failing to recognize one’s capabilities is not as grave an offense as the arrogant presumption of greatness.  Nevertheless, we may learn from Moshe’s tzara’at that just as we must not see ourselves as something more than we are, we must also not see ourselves as something less than we are.  We should try, as much as possible, to evaluate ourselves and our abilities with sheer honesty and objectivity, so we neither try to do that which is beyond our level, on the one hand, nor, on the other, avoid striving to achieve that which is well within our reach.

Originally posted on VBM

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