Over Yom Tov, I shared with my shul a humbling experience. I was looking for a particular sefer in a seforim store when an older man came over and asked me for a bracha. I explained that I am not someone who is worthy of giving brachos, but he insisted, so I relented, mumbling something about being a kohein so it may be justified. After the gentleman left, the owner of the store whispered in my ear, “I don’t know if you are aware that this guy thinks you’re Rav Dovid Feinstein.” I had heard this mistaken description before, which I found flattering although somewhat disconcerting, since I believe the rosh yeshiva is at least twenty years older. Nevertheless, when it happens, it’s always an uplifting but humbling experience.
In the sukkah and on Yomim Tovim in general, I often tell stories of how my parents and others performed mitzvos in the concentration camps. They blew shofar although they knew it could lead to death by torture instead of a somewhat quicker and less painful method. They davened with a minyan without siddurim, let alone machzorim, built clandestine sukkos and ate their miserable rations as if it was seudas Shlomo Hamelech. They baked matzos with contraband flour and declared themselves “free” of Paroh and the Nazis, for they had succeeded in performing Hashem’s command. The net result was always that we feel humbled by how our immediate ancestors – only seventy years ago – managed to adhere to mitzvos, while for us it is so easy. Who knows if we would have had the courage, ingenuity and stamina to do the same under similar circumstances?
But I wondered, “Is there really a purpose to such speculation?” Doesn’t it shatter what little self-esteem we often have left? Why engage in such comparisons at all?
One thought that occurred to me was that we have been told for centuries to ask, “When will my actions approach those of the avos?” (Tanna Devei Eliyahu Rabbah 25). It seems that despite our absolute inability to even comprehend, let alone fully emulate, the ways of the patriarchs, we must strive to do as much as we can.
The Alter of Kelm (quoted by Michtav M’Eliyahu 4:276) teaches that the source for this important middah is Moshe Rabbeinu at the burning bush. Moshe stopped to see the amazing sight of the bush which did not burn, and although he did nothing more, that first step put him on the road to the leadership of Klal Yisroel.
The Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh 22), also, declares that when one does all that he possibly can, he is granted superhuman powers, beyond his natural mortal abilities. The Chovos Halevavos concludes that one must keep in mind that if he is accomplishing something normally beyond human strength, that is exactly what heaven had expected of him (see, also, Ohel Moshe, Vayikra, page 600).
Rav Yechezkel Sarna (Deloyos Yechezkel, Chumash, page 122 and Darchei Avodas Hashem, page 93) is even more optimistic about our ability to emulate the giants. He states that “we must constantly seek to follow in the ways of the avos.” Basing himself upon Rabbeinu Yonah, Rav Sarna concludes that we have the capability to constantly emulate the avos, albeit on our own level, if we set our heart and mind to the task.
Rav Meir Chodosh (Chevron Haggadah, page 272) adds that this is why we are always reminding ourselves of the chasdei avos, the colossal level of loving-kindness achieved by our forefathers. Although at any given time we are not even close to their level, the very fact that we are striving is already a merit for us all.
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Darash Moshe, page146) derives this same concept from another source. After receiving the Aseres Hadibros, Klal Yisroel approached Moshe Rabbeinu to be an intermediary between Hashem and the nation. Listening to Hashem directly was too formidable and frightening. When they spoke to Moshe, they used the odd word “ve’at – and you,” utilizing the feminine instead of the masculine pronoun. Rashi explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was complaining that “you weakened me as a female, for I was in pain and concerned because of you and you weakened my hand. You should have exhibited love toward Hashem by seeking to hear from Him directly.” The very next posuk indicates that Hashem, however, accepted the Bnei Yisroel’s request. Rav Moshe explains that while Moshe Rabbeinu wanted us to rise to a certain level of greatness, Hashem was satisfied that we had tried our best. Since we had attempted to listen directly to Hashem and were not ready for that lofty madreigah, Hashem accepted our efforts as sufficient.
The Chazon Ish (see Aharon Sorasky’s HaChazon Ish Bedorosav, page 15) applied this concept to the mandate to study the biographies of gedolei Yisroel. Although we are often woefully below their towering greatness, just yearning to be like them fulfills Eliyahu Hanovi’s teaching that we should always measure ourselves by standards above us.
The Chofetz Chaim distilled this idea into an epigram from Napoleon. The famous French emperor used to state that if any of his soldiers did not dream of becoming a general, he could not even be a proper foot soldier. “The same,” concluded the Chofetz Chaim, “is true of a ben Torah. If he does not at least hope to become a gadol baTorah, he is not even a true ben Torah” (Meir Einei Yisroel, volume 2). This was also the philosophy of Rav Aharon Kotler zt”l in imbuing every Lakewood talmid with the hope and potential of becoming one of the future gedolei hador.
The Chofetz Chaim zt”l (HaChofetz Chaim, Chayav Upa’alav, pages 77-78) was known to have applied an effective metaphor to this process. He described a man who was standing at the seashore and pearls were emerging from the sea. Would anyone imagine that he should not run and seize them since he could not possibly capture them all? Of course, he should save as many as he can. The Chofetz Chaim indeed advised one of his students who had entered the rabbinate that he was accomplishing a great deal even if no one was listening to his drashos. The young man lamented that even after delivering a two-hour fiery sermon, he did not feel that he had changed a single person in attendance. The sage of Radin consoled him with the extraordinary reminder that the Gaon of Vilna quoted a Medrash that teaches that for every moment that a person is silent, he merits the mystical light of the Seven Days of Creation. “Just think of how much you have accomplished by causing hundreds of Jews to be silent for two hours,” the Chofetz Chaim soothingly concluded.
We may give the final words to the mashgiach of Lakewood, Rav Nosson Wachtfogel zt”l, who put it all into perspective. We, who yearn for the lofty madreigos of the avos, should remember, he taught, that “the greatest trait of the avos was their atzmiyus – originality and unique spirit. They themselves didn’t imitate anybody, as the novi (Yechezkel 33:24) says, ‘Echad hayah Avrohom – Avrohom was all by himself.’ Yaakov, also, is described by the posuk which states, ‘And Yaakov was left alone’ (Bereishis 32:25). He forged his own path.” The mashgiach is teaching us a profound and subtle lesson. Although on the one hand our eyes must constantly be on our holy ancestors who set such a high bar for us, we must know our own powers and abilities, as we learned from Rav Moshe Feinstein. We must be realistic and far reaching at the same time.
That is the paradox often articulated by my rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, as oscillating between humility and gaavah d’kedushah, holy audacity. We must strive for the ultimate greatness, while knowing our own limitations at any given moment. At the next moment, we will be ready for more and must yearn for that opportunity. Yes, Hashem does send us humbling experiences, when we need to be humbled. But sometimes we need to look upwards to the infinite possibilities presented to each one of us. May we each balance our actions carefully to achieve all that we can.
A gezunten vinter to all.