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The True Meaning of Greatness (Parshas Shemos)

parsha sefer shemos Jan 06, 2021
 

 

There were once two boys who went ice-skating on a frozen lake in their neighborhood. As they were enjoying themselves, the ice suddenly cracked, and one of the boys fell through into the icy water. His friend started frantically reaching for him, but he was too late, and the boy got swept underneath the ice. Desperate to save his friend, this scrawny boy quickly looked around, saw a tree in the distance, and rushed over to try and pull off a branch. After tugging for a few seconds, he managed to crack off a huge branch, and he then quickly ran back to his friend.  He smashed and thrashed at the thick ice until it finally cracked, allowing him to grab onto his friend. He dragged him back to the shore just as the ambulance arrived, and miraculously, they were able to resuscitate him.

 

Once the commotion had died down, one of the younger ambulance members sat on the side of the lake, looking extremely confused. He muttered to himself, "How can such a scrawny kid break through such thick ice, let alone snap off such a giant branch? It's impossible! How in the world did he do it?” An older ambulance member sat down next to him and smiled. "I'll tell you how he did it," he said. "How?", asked the younger ambulance member. "There was no one there to tell them that he couldn't.”

 

What could we accomplish if instead of listening to the voice in our head that tells us we can’t, we listened to the voice within us that tells us we can?

 

As Great as Moshe Rabbeinu?

 

In Parshas Shemos, we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest person who ever lived.[1] In addition to leading the Jewish People out of Mitzrayim, Moshe also received the Torah on Har Sinai directly from Hashem. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, surpassing all human boundaries and limitations, and the Torah itself testifies that no one reached the level of nevuah (prophecy) that Moshe was able to attain.[2] And yet, the Rambam[3] says something absolutely shocking. He states that everyone is capable of becoming a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu. How is this possible? It seems improbable that all of us have the potential to become leaders, let alone the greatest human being of all time. So what does the Rambam mean by this statement?

 

Are We All Capable of Greatness?

 

This question arises in another context as well. In its account of our experience as a fetus in the womb, the Gemara[4]includes a cryptic and perplexing line. The Gemara says that just before each of us are born, we are forced to take a shevua (oath) that we will become a tzaddik. Once again, we face a problem. An oath is a promise, a guarantee. How can we promise that we'll be a tzaddik? Are we all cut out to be great, to be a tzaddik? How can we explain this strange Gemara? To understand this topic, let us begin by returning to the beginning of this Gemara[5].

 

Your Origin Story

 

The beginning of this Gemara is, in fact, a familiar one. It is the very same Gemara which discusses the unique journey of the fetus in the womb. As we previously explained, while we were in the womb, a malach (angel) taught us kol ha'Torah kulah (all of Torah).[6] As the Vilna Gaon explains, this refers to the deepest realms of Torah, a transcendent Torah that lies far beyond this world, beyond the realm of space and time. This Torah is the very root of reality, and you were granted complete understanding of its every detail. Not only were you shown this level of Torah, but you also learned your specific share of Torah- you were shown your unique purpose in the world, and how your unique role fits into the larger scheme of the human story as a whole. You were given a taste of your own perfection, of what you could, should, and hopefully will become. And from this transcendent realm, you were birthed into the physical world with the mission to actualize everything you were shown in the womb, while in your primordial, perfect state.

 

Your Life is Uniquely Designed For You

 

We are each endowed with our own unique potential, and everything in our life - down to the smallest detail - is here to help us fulfill our unique role. Many people are unhappy with the life they have, constantly comparing their lives to those of others, always searching for a reason to complain. If we understood that we were each given a unique package, one uniquely designed for us, we would find so much more joy in life. Your body is the exact body you need to carry you through this world. Your psychological clothing, which includes your intellect, imagination, memory, emotions, and personality, were perfectly crafted and designed for you and your unique role in this world. You were born into a specific family at a specific time period, were sent to a specific school, in a specific community, and were exposed to a particular set of social influences. All of these things make up your unique package, setting the stage for your journey through life.

 

Everything in your life is there only to help you grow and become the person you were meant to become, to manifest what you were shown in the womb, to recreate your ideal self. Your job isn't to become great, it's to become you! That is true greatness. Many people struggle to find their tafkid- their purpose in the world- because they're looking in the wrong place. You can't find your role by looking outside, you can only find it by looking deeper inside, within yourself. True growth requires us to grow from within. We need to go into a room, by ourselves, and ask the difficult and key questions: Who am I? What drives me? What makes me unique? What are my talents? What are my passions? What can I contribute to the Jewish People and the world as a whole?[7]

 

The Antidote for Jealousy

 

With this in mind, we can now understand why comparison and jealousy are illogical and pointless. If each of us are completely unique, how can we compare ourselves to anyone else? As Einstein famously said, "if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it's foolish". We cannot compare ourselves to someone else, as we are completely different people. If we genuinely understood this, we would never be jealous. Once we realize that everything in our life is exactly what we need to fulfill our unique potential, we’ll stop looking around at what other people have, and start utilizing what we have. To take it a step further, we can actually begin to be happy for other people's success, as we will realize that we aren't competing with each other; we're all on the same team, we're all part of the cosmic symphony of life. Our ear would never be jealous of our hand, since they're both part of the same body; so too, if we realized that we're all part of the same "body", we would never be jealous of anyone else.

 

Becoming a Tzaddik Like Moshe Rabbeinu

 

We can now return to our original question. The term “tzaddik” does not refer to an objective image of greatness, rather a tzaddik is one who fulfils his or her role and actualizes their unique potential. “Tzedek” literally means "correct” and refers to the concept of truth. Becoming a tzaddik means living your truth and bringing your unique potential into actuality. When we each made an oath to become a tzaddik, we each promised to fulfill our unique role in this world.

 

Find Your Unique Mission

 

We each have our own unique, individual mission. Some of us will be on the front lines, while others will make an impact behind the scenes. Both are tzaddikim, both are fulfilling their unique role. As Rav Elchanan Wasserman explains in his Ma'amarim, when the Rambam states that each of us can be a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu, he specifically uses the word "tzaddik". We may not be able to become as objectively great as Moshe, but we can become as great on our personal scale; just as Moshe fulfilled his unique potential, so too, we can each fulfill our unique potential.

 

It's time to take the next step in our journey through life. Just like the boy from the lake story, it's time to say "yes, I can". We need to stop holding ourselves back from our own greatness. We have greatness within us, and it is our responsibility to bring that greatness to the world! For in truth, we can all become a tzaddik like Moshe Rabbeinu.

 

[1] See chapter on Parshas Beha’aloscha for a more detailed exploration of Moshe’s unique greatness.

[2] For more on Moshe’s greatness and unique level of prophecy, see chapter on Parshas Beha’aloscha.

[3] Hilchos Teshuva 5:2.

[4] Niddah 30b.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see chapter on Parshas Bereishis, section: “Your Creation Story”. See also chapter on Parshas Mishpatim for a deeper explanation of why this process occurs.

[7] Accordingly, self-worth and confidence should not come from comparing oneself to others. The only comparison one should make is with one’s own past self. One should ask: “Am I better than the person I was yesterday?” or “How can I move forward and become a slightly better version of myself today?”.

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