Redefining the Meaning of Greatness
The Lake Story
There were once two boys who went skating on a frozen lake. As they were enjoying themselves, the ice cracked, and one of the boys fell through the cracks into the icy water. His friend tried with all his might to save him, but he was too late: His friend got swept underneath the current, and was stuck underneath the ice.
Desperate to save his friend, this scrawny boy quickly looked around and saw a tree in the distance. He rushed over, pulled down a giant branch, rushed back, and started smashing and thrashing away at the thick ice. Finally, he was able to break through the thick ice, pull out his friend, and drag him to safety. When the ambulance came, they were able to resuscitate him and, miraculously, the boy survived.
One of the younger ambulance crewmembers sat there dumbfounded, scratching his head, and muttered out loud, “How can such a scrawny kid break through such thick ice, let alone pull down such a giant branch? It’s impossible; I don’t get it! An older ambulance crewmember sat next to him, and smiled. “I’ll tell you how he did it.” “How?” asked the younger ambulance member. “There was no one there to tell him that he couldn’t.”
What couldn’t we possibly do if, instead of listening to that voice inside us that tells us that we can’t, that we listened instead to that still small voice within us that tells us we can. Let’s explore a deep topic connected to this week’s parshah.
As Great As Moshe Rabbeinu?
In parshas Sh’mos, we are introduced to Moshe Rabbeinu, perhaps the greatest person who ever lived. Moshe not only led the Jewish people out of Mitzrayim, but he also received the Torah on Har Sinai. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, surpassing all human boundaries or limitations, and the Torah itself even testifies that no one reached the level of n’vuah (prophecy) that Moshe was able to attain. Yet, the Rambam (Hilchos T’shuvah 5:2) says something absolutely shocking. He claims that everyone is able to be a tzadik like Moshe Rabbeinu! How is this possible? Not all of us are able to become leaders, let alone become the greatest leader in human history? So what does the Rambam mean?
Are We All Capable of Greatness?
We can take this question a step further. The Gemara in Nidah (30b) has a cryptic and perplexing line. The Gemara says that just before each of us is born, Hashem makes us take a neder (an oath) that we will become a tzadik. Once again, we face a problem. An oath is a guarantee, a promise. How can we promise that we’ll be a tzadik? Not all of us are cut out to be great, to be tzadikim. How can we explain this strange piece of Gemara? Let’s begin by going back to the beginning of this Gemara in Nidah (30b).
Your Origin Story
The Gemara discusses a very enigmatic tale describing the initial stage of our formation. The Gemara explains that when you were just a fetus, you were in a perfected and transcendent state of being. While in utero, a mal’ach taught you kol haTorah kulah – all of Torah – and you understood all of reality with a crystal clear lens. However, the Gemara continues with an anticlimactic punch (literally): Just before you were born, the mal’ach struck you on the mouth, causing you to forget everything you learned.
Two obvious questions arise: Why does the mal’ach make you forget what you’ve learned? But more importantly, if he’s going to make you forget it, why even teach it to you in the first place?
Changing the way we view the human mind, the Vilna Gaon answers as follows: When you learned all of Torah, it doesn’t mean you were learning Chumash with Rashi. Rather, it means that you were learning your Torah; you were being 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. But most importantly, you didn’t lose it; rather, you lost access to it. Instead of it disappearing completely, this state of self became buried deep within your subconscious. The reason is as follows: What you received in the womb wasn’t real; it was merely a gift – something unearned and undeserved. The goal of life is to come into this world and resurface all that you once were in the womb. However, this time, it will be real, since you’ve built it yourself. In essence, your job in this world is not to create yourself, but rather to recreate yourself; to re-attain your original state of perfection, as you were shown by the mal’ach. This time, however, it has to be done through free will, by choosing to become great. Only by overcoming challenge and difficulty, and asserting your will-power, can you fulfill your true potential.
Your Life Is Uniquely Designed for You
We can now begin to explore the nature of the human condition. As the Ramchal explains, everything in your life is here to help you fulfill your unique role. Many people are unhappy with the life they have, constantly comparing their lives to those around them, always searching for another reason to complain. If only we understood that we were each given a unique package, we’d 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 are part of the reason you are who you are.
Everything in your life is there only to help you grow and become the person you were meant to become, to resurface what you once had in the womb, and to recreate your ideal self. Your job isn’t to become great; it’s to become you! 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 more deeply 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?
The Antidote for Jealousy
With this in mind, we can now understand why comparison and jealousy are completely illogical. If each of us is unique and different, how can you compare yourself 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 stupid.” You can’t compare yourself to someone else, since you’re completely different. If we genuinely understood this, we would never be jealous. Once you realize that everything in your life is exactly what you need to fulfill your unique potential, you’ll stop looking around at what other people have, and start utilizing what you have. To take it a step even further, you can actually begin to be happy for other people’s success, since you’ll 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. Your ear would never be jealous of your hand, since they’re both part of the same body; so too, if you realized that we’re all part of the same “body,” you’d never be jealous of anyone else.
Answering Our Questions
Now we can return to our questions. As many explain, a tzadik doesn’t mean someone who is “great”; it refers to someone who fulfills his role and actualizes his unique potential. Tzedek literally means “correctness” and refers to the truth. Becoming a tzadik means living your truth, and bringing your unique potential into actuality. When the Gemara says that we each made an oath to become a tzadik, it’s referring to our promise to fulfill our unique role in this world. We each have our mission; some will be on the front lines, while others are more behind the scenes. Both are tzadikim, both are fulfilling their unique roles. As Rav Elchonon Wasserman explains in his Maamarim, when the Rambam explains that each of us can be a tzadik like Moshe Rabbeinu, he specifically uses the word “tzadik.” We may not be able to become as objectively great as Moshe, but we can each become subjectively as great. Just as Moshe fulfilled his unique potential, so too, we can each fulfill our unique potential!
Michael Jordan’s Mentality
When Michael Jordan was once interviewed, he said: “How do you think I became who I became? Who do you think I competed against? If I competed against others, I’d never have become who I am; I would have settled once I was the best. But I competed against myself – the person I knew I was meant to become! I wanted to become better than I was, and become the best me. Everyone else made the mistake of competing against “me” and not against himself, so they all fell short, and felt like they weren’t great.”
It’s time to take the next step in your 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. You’ve got greatness within you, and it’s your responsibility to bring that greatness to the world! For, in truth, we can all become tzadikim like Moshe Rabbeinu.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker and has spoken internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities. You can find more inspirational shiurim, videos, and articles from Shmuel on Facebook and Yutorah.org. For all questions, thoughts, or bookings, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.