Parshat Behaalotcha states (12:3), “VeHaIsh Moshe Anav Me’od MiKol HaAdam,” “And the man Moshe was very humble, [more] than every man.” Yalkut Shimoni on this Pasuk comments that although Moshe was humbler than all men, he was not as humble as the Avot. This Midrash is not only puzzling due to its sharp contrast to the simple interpretation of the Pasuk, but also due to the fact that Chulin 89a states explicitly that Moshe was humbler than Avraham. The Gemara learns this from the fact that Avraham refers to himself as dust and ashes (Bereshit 18:27), while Moshe uses the phrase (Shemot 16:8), “And what are we?” Avraham at least described himself as a substance with some, albeit very little, value. Moshe, on the other hand, considered himself absolutely worthless. How, then, are we to understand the Midrash that credits the Avot with a higher level of humility?
R’ Yisrael Salanter explains that both Moshe’s humility and that of the Avot were due to their understanding of the greatness of Hashem. It was not something that they had to work toward with any degree of effort, but rather an automatic response to the Creator and His Hashgachah over the universe. Moshe reached a degree of closeness to and understanding of Hashem that the Avot did not reach. We learn this form the beginning of Parshat Vaera, where Hashem informs Moshe (Shemot 6:3), “UShemi Hashem Lo Nodati Lahem.” Hashem only appeared to the Avot “Bekail Shakai” (ibid.), but not with His four-letter Name, as He did with Moshe. Moshe’s level of humility was greater in “quantity” than that of the Avot simply because his level of understanding of Hashem was greater and automatically evoked a greater sense of humility. On the other hand, the Midrash is teaching us, the “quality” of the humility of the Avot was greater than the “quality” of Moshe’s humility. Relative to their level of understanding of and closeness to Hashem, the humility of the Avot was in fact greater.