Monday, May 27, 2024

Greatness, Leadership, Humility and What Hashem Wants From Us

In the media business, one of the most dreaded occurrences is a slow news day. What will the talking heads pontificate about if there is nothing going on? What will the media giants write about to fill the pages of their slumping newspapers? How will CNN pick up its slumping ratings if there is no news? Eager to keep the focus off the flailing economy, the incumbent and his allies in the media will be working overtime to churn out stories that arouse viewer emotions and distract their intellect. They will be slamming anything the challenger ever did in his life, painting success as failure and intellectual growth as flip-flopping. For the next few months, they have nothing to worry about. With an election in November, there will be no shortage of stories. Long-forgotten high school enemies are waiting to be interviewed. Eagle-eyed reporters are on the lookout for the inevitable mistakes and blunders, which then spawn denials and counter-attacks.

The issues will be pushed to the back of the public psyche. Hate, cynicism and negativity will run amok. The winner will likely be the one who can best impugn the other. Accomplishments won’t count, character won’t count, and past history won’t count. All is fair in political war.  


Compare that model for assuming leadership against ours. Rav Chaim Kanievsky sits in his small apartment praying for anonymity, but welcoming in whoever comes seeking him out. Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman is about as quiet a person as you can find. He sits in his apartment, at a small, old, simple table, along with a chavrusah a quarter his age, studying with him as an equal. When they are done, dozens converge upon the elderly gadol, having stood on line waiting to approach him.


The same pattern follows in this country, with eminently approachable talmidei chachomim gedolim, many without gabboim to serve as buffers between them and the people who seek them out for their direction and guidance, sitting in botei medrash, seeking nothing more than anonymity and the ability to engage in learning, mitzvos and maasim tovim.


At the end of this week’s parsha, we are told that Miriam spoke against her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu, and impugned his motives and what he had done. The Torah testifies in his defense, “Veha’ish Moshe onov me’od mikol ho’odom asher al p’nei ho’adamah – Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any other person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3).


The defense the Torah offers doesn’t seem to address Miriam’s complaint. To respond to the aspersions on Moshe’s character, the Torah doesn’t say that Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest leader who ever lived. It doesn’t say that he was the teacher of all of Klal Yisorel for eternity. It doesn’t discuss the dinei Torah he paskened and the halachos he taught. It doesn’t say that he was an Ish Elokim, who was chosen to deliver Hashem’s Torah. It doesn’t say that he performed open miracles and that he was a baal mofeis. Hakadosh Boruch Hu didn’t recount Moshe’s extraordinary birth and history. In order to refute what Miriam said about him, the Torah simply states that Moshe was the ultimate onov.


Apparently, the middah of anovah encompasses all else. The attribute of humility includes all others. Thus, the statement that Moshe was the consummate onov was the most effective answer to her lashon horah.


An onov recognizes his place in the world. He recognizes his responsibility in life and he knows that all that he has are gifts from Hashem. An onov knows mah chovaso ba’olamo. He knows and recognizes what is incumbent upon him in every situation. He seeks not his own glory, but rather the glory of Hashem and His creatures.


The onov lives his life as akli, a vessel, to hold the light ofkevod Shomayim, so his decisions and actions are pure and clean. It isn’t about him, but about what he can do to increase Hashem’s glory. Thus, the answer to Miriam was: “How dare you doubt his motivations? He is an onov!”


The onov doesn’t see himself as being above other people. The greater the person is, the smarter he is, and the more he knows and accomplishes, the more reason for him to be humble. The more he learns, the more he sees there is to know. The smarter he is, the more he realizes that there is so much he doesn’t understand. The closer he is to Hashem, the more he comprehends that all he has – his life, his money, his wife, his children, his intelligence and everything else – are gifts from Hashem. He knows that he is tola’as velo ish.


Just a few weeks ago, I had the zechus to have the Stamford rosh yeshiva, Rav Meir Hershkowitz, in my home for a meeting to discuss an upcoming fund raiser for the yeshiva. During the course of the conversation, the rosh yeshiva loaned someone his very inexpensive, Bic-like pen. When the meeting was over, the rosh yeshiva asked for his pen, but it was not to be found.


Last year, we gave out Parker pens to boys who participated in the Summer Masmidei Yated program. I took one of the leftover ones and gave it to Rav Meir. He looked at it, commented that it was a nice pen, and asked why I would give it to him. I told him that we used these pens for prizes for boys who learned well and we had a few extra.


With simplistic humility, he gave the pen back to me. “I knew I had to be here tonight, and it was on my mind during the day,” said the rosh yeshiva. “I am not sure I leaned well enough today to deserve it. I can’t take it.”


One of the greatest talmidim of Rav Aharon Kotler, a man who does little else but learn Torah all day, a man who is famed for his gadlus baTorah, refused to accept a pen used to reward children who learn well, because he thought that, perhaps, his learning that day wasn’t up to par.


Those of us in the room looked at each other in amazement. We had just witnessed true gadlus.


Our leaders don’t demand honor and respect. They are focused as they deflect all honor to Heaven. We, however, recognize their devotion to Hashem and their greatness in Torah and we force honor upon them.


Rav Eizek Sher, a son-in-law of the Alter of Slabodka and founder of the yeshiva’s branch in Bnei Brak, was a paragon of mussar. One morning, he was walking up the narrow walkway towards the yeshiva, his stately figure and countenance inspiring respect in talmidim and passersby. He walked slowly and deliberately, every step measured and focused.


As he made his way slowly up the path, a young woman suddenly came rushing down that very same path, blocking the way. The bochur who accompanied Rav Sher gestured for her to step aside, but she seemed not to notice them and hurried by without a word of apology, intent on reaching her destination. The bochur was irate. “Eizo chatzufah!” he exclaimed.  


The aged baal mussar didn’t say a word, continuing on his way to the yeshiva as if nothing had happened.


The next day, Rav Eizek reviewed the incident with the bochur and opened his eyes to how he was to view and interact with people, putting aside his own feelings and pride.


“Let’s consider what happened yesterday,” he began. “I, Eizek Sher, am a respected rosh yeshiva. When I get up in the morning, my rebbetzin has a warm drink waiting for me before I leave forShacharis. I make my way to daven in yeshiva, and all along the way people nod to me in greeting, opening doors for me as I pass. In the yeshiva itself, by the time I arrive at my seat, someone has placed asiddur on my shtender and another rushes forward to carry my tallis and tefillin for me. I daven at the front of the large room, in a place of respect along the front wall.


“When davening is over, I sit in my seat and learn in peace for a few precious minutes before heading home for a delicious and filling breakfast, again served by my dedicated rebbetzin, who is completely focused on my wellbeing.


The rosh yeshiva looked at his companion. “Now, let us consider the schedule of this young wife and mother. It is very likely that she has an infant who was crying persistently throughout the night, making sleep impossible. Then, when morning finally came, there were several other children who needed to be dressed and fed, all of them clamoring for her attention. She ran from one to the next, trying valiantly to meet the demands of each one, and, finally, with a hurried tefillah on her lips, she got each one off to school, no small feat. She wanted so badly to sit down and enjoy a quick cup of coffee or piece of toast, but, alas, she looked at the clock and saw that if she does, she would be late for work.”


The rosh yeshiva continued: “She must work hard in order to support her husband, a budding talmid chochom, and she is gratified to be able to be his partner, yet the long hours sometimes wear her down. Her boss warned her that she must start arriving punctually, so she hurries out of the house without a chance to catch her breath, rushing to be on time for work.


“On the way, she barely notices the old man, walking slowly and leisurely, enjoying the warm sunshine and soft breeze. She sees none of it, only her empty chair at work and the face of her boss.


“Yet,” finished Rav Eizek, “the elderly man keeps walking so slowly, blocking her path, so she steps aside and runs around him, so anxious is she.”


He looked at the bochur with a long stare. “And then you say that she has chutzpah?”


Rav Eizek did not see himself, his ownkavod, and the perceived slight of honor. He saw a Yiddishe tochter, late for work. The gadlus ha’odom of Slabodka combined with the middas anovah of the Mesilas Yeshorim.


– – – – –


The Chasam Sofer is renowned as one of the greatest Talmudic geniuses, talmidei chachomim, roshei yeshivos, rabbonim and leaders our nation has known in the past few centuries.


One day, while he was delivering his shiur to his talmidim in the yeshiva, he noticed that something was amiss. He saw that the bochurim weren’t sitting with their usual fear and deep concentration. Instead, they were sitting nonchalantly and even giggling here and there. He was very unnerved and stopped the shiur until he was able to get to the bottom of what was going on.


He found out that Yitzchok Aharon, a brilliant student, had transcribed from memory the shiur that the Chasam Sofer had delivered during the previous machzor (cycle of learning) on this same topic. In his brilliance, the young talmid also transcribed the different mannerisms that the Chasam Sofer, rebbi of Klal Yisroel, had displayed at each point in the shiur the last time he delivered it.


The Chasam Sofer let it be known that he was upset with Yitzchok Aharon. Then he shut his Gemorah and left the room.


The boys were petrified from the way they had upset their rebbi and knew they were in for a terrible punishment. Their fears were realized the next day when word came down that every bochur in the yeshiva was to attend the shiur that day, with no exception. Three hundred and eighty nine ashen-faced boys limped into shiur that day. Poor Yitzchok Aharon was so petrified that he couldn’t walk. He literally had to be carried by his chaveirim into the room and placed in his seat.  


When they were all seated, the Chasam Sofer walked into the room, bent over in sadness. He was crying as he spoke.


“Yesterday,” he began, “I lost myself. Instead of praising Yitzchok Aharon for his brilliance and depth of love for his rebbi’s shiurim that he was able to recall the shiur word for word with the expressions, I transgressed the aveirah of malbin pnei chaveiro berabim,” he said.


The Chasam Sofer began sobbing uncontrollably and had to pause before continuing.


“One who is malbin pnei chaveiro berabim forfeits his share in the World to Come. By doing so, I have lost my right to say shiurim here. But I want forgiveness. I beg you to forgive me, I beg Hashem to forgive me. I promise to never behave like that again. And I beg Yitzchok Aharon to forgive me.”


“Please, Yitzchok Aharon, tell me that you are moichel me.”


Yitzchok Aharon was frozen by fear. He couldn’t open his mouth. He had been carried into the room, petrified that he had offended his great rebbi, the giant of the generation, the lion of the Jewish people, and as he sat there hearing the impassioned plea, he was too overcome to respond.


He sat hunched over in his seat, quivering.


The bochurim saw the great pain their rebbi was experiencing and they turned to Yitzchok Aharon. “Please,” they said. “Tell rebbi that you’re mochel. Please.”


Yitzchok Aharon was finally able to open his mouth, but he couldn’t emit any sounds. He tried and tried and the chorus begging him grew louder. Finally, he was able to softly utter the words, “Yo, ich bin moichel.


The Chasam Sofer asked him again, “Are you mochel beleiv sholeim?”


The young talmid of the great leader stood up and walked over to his rebbi, kissed him on his hand, and assured him that, of course, he was.


With that, the Chasam Sofer was relieved. He announced that since he was forgiven, he would resume saying his shiurim.


The Chasam Sofer was the greatest giant of his time, a man who struck fear in mortals, yet anovah was his driving middah. He felt that he, the world leader of Jews, had overreacted to a young student, and he begged that he be forgiven. His overriding concern was properly serving Hashem, and when he thought that he had transgressed, there was no feeling of pride that could prevent him from pleading for forgiveness in front of close to four hundred students.


Because, the greater the man, the more humble he is. The more gadlus he has, the bigger an onov he is.


– – – – –


I was reminded of this incident involving the Chasam Sofer when my dear friend, Rabbi Yechiel Spero, the master mechaneich and Yated columnist, shared the following story with me.


The children who attended the cheder in the small village of Janowska in the late 1930s loved their melamed, Rav Naftali, more than anything. Although he was nearing 70, he still chose to teach young children, those just learning Alef-Bais, those starting to learn Chumash, and those beginning the study of Mishnayos. His warmth and caring for his students endeared him to all.


The cheder was housed in a local shul, and each day would begin the same for Rav Naftali’s talmidim. He would ask them if they had a good breakfast, which, he explained, was vital to being able to learn well. He would also make sure that they had gotten a good night’s sleep. If one of the boys put his head down on the table, the rebbi would ask, “What time did you go to sleep last night?” The boys knew that Rav Naftali loved them as if they were his own children, and they loved him in return.


Although Rav Naftali taught the lower grades, he was known to be an outstanding talmid chochom. His erudition and ability to master even the most difficult portions of Shas were known throughout the village. There was no part of Torah, including the hidden secrets, in which he was not well-versed. Nevertheless, when passing this tzaddik on the street, one would never know it. He would proudly say that he was melamed tinokos shel bais rabban, a teacher of young children. He treasured his job. It was the perfect position for him, as he was an onov who abhorred kavod.


In shul, the men often urged him to sit in a place of honor near the front, but he always refused, even becoming a bit agitated, but otherwise he was always pleasant and kind. Kavod was something from which he passionately stayed away.


But there was one day in Rav Naftali’s life when he did actually boast of his own greatness – the very last day of his life.


The Nazis had been drawing closer and closer. The townspeople knew that they had only a few days until the terror would come to their doors, but there was nowhere to run. So they waited, trying to go about life as if nothing was wrong. The older children, of course, sensed that something terrible was going to happen. They noticed the adults’ worried faces and whispered discussions. The only thing anyone could do at this point was daven.


Rav Naftali was also aware of the impending doom and was terrified for his own family and, of course, for the tzon kodoshim, the holy flock, for whom he was responsible. They were no different than any of his own children or grandchildren. The talmidim whom he loved went about their daily lives as if nothing was about to happen, doing their schoolwork and repeating their pesukim in their singsong voices.


Rav Naftali knew that before the dreaded moment arrived, he would need to prepare his children – all of his children – in some way for what lay ahead.


The day finally came.


The children had just finished learning and were running around outside during recess. Rav Naftali heard the low rumble in the distance, but the children didn’t hear it at first. They just continued playing their games, as the trucks were less than a mile away. Suddenly, everyone realized what was about to happen and ran to hide. Although they had prepared for this and everyone had a hiding place, the panic and fear were overwhelming.


Rav Naftali had told his family about his personal plan: His own children were older, but his talmidim were young. If the Nazis came while he was teaching, he would stay with the children. Now it was real. He calmly but firmly encouraged the children to stop their recess immediately and run into the shul. They didn’t understand what was happening, but they followed their rebbi’s instructions. Once inside, they sat around the table and looked at the face of their rebbi. His expression was one they had never seen before.


Kinderlach,” he said, “I must tell you that there are terrible resha’im who are coming now. They are going to take us all away. Im yirtzeh Hashem, we will be protected, but I need you to remember something.”


Rav Naftali no longer spoke softly. His voice grew louder as he looked around the room, frightening the young boys. Their faces showed their fear as well as their deep love of the rebbi.


“Look at me!” he shouted. “Remember what you see. All my life I have never once demanded or accepted any honor for my own benefit. But I want you to always remember one thing…”


By now, the younger ones were crying or trying terribly hard not to.


Rav Naftali could no longer hold back his own tears and wept while pointing to himself.


Kinderlach, this is gadlus baTorah. Look at me and never forget it. This is the tzurah of a gadol b’Yisroel! No matter what happens, this is what you should aspire to be; you must never forget that Torah is the most important thing in life.”


He then put his arms around them and held onto them. The trucks rumbled through the town, the vicious dogs and blaring loudspeakers filling the air with frightening noise and commands. The Jews were told to go to the center of town. Shaking, Rav Naftali led his children out of the shul.


A few hours later, they were herded away, the gadol baTorah together with his children…


One child remained from that small group, and he was able to tell this incredible story.


Gadlus and anovah, hand in hand. Rav Naftali knew he was a gadol, he knew that he possessed greatness, but he minimized it. He sought nothing for himself. His sole intent was to complete his mission of spreading Torah and goodness in this world. He sought neither honor nor recognition, for he appreciated how fleeting and meaningless they are.


– – – – –


Hashem’s answer to Miriam was meant to impart this message. An onov has a cheshbon and it’s never a personal one. He doesn’t live for himself. He lives for others, to accomplish for the greater good and to serve Hashem. Don’t doubt the purity of his motives, for he is humble.


Let no one believe that there is a contradiction between being humble and possessing sufficient self-esteem. Society is obsessed with the need for self-esteem, using terms like personal empowerment as it seeks to instill a sense of ego in a generation devoid of substance and thus lacking self-worth.


In this week’s parsha, the Torah provides a lesson of just how valuable and cherished every person is.


Miriam was punished for speaking lashon horah. She was afflicted with tzora’as and forced into seclusion. Yet, the Torah reports that the nation didn’t continue on their sojourn through the desert until Miriam was healed. Why the need to keep everyone waiting and why the need to record it for all time? It was to show that even though Miriam sinned, Hashem still loved her.


Often, people who err and slip lose their self-worth, feeling as though their indiscretion will somehow doom them. They become broken, sure that Hashemwill turn on them because they did an aveirah. Sometimes, one little aveirah sets a person on a downward spiral, ending with a painful crash at the bottom of a deep pit.


The Torah reports that Am Yisroel waited in the desert for Miriam for several days in order to dispel that notion. We love the person who has fallen, and we stand by, ready to pick him up. The Torah is admonishing us not to give up on ourselves and not to give up on others, even though they have sinned. Miriam Haneviah spoke ill of her brother, transgressing the laws of lashon horah, and was punished for doing so, but she didn’t lose favor in the eyes of Hashem. She was welcomed back into Hashem’s embrace and into the embrace of Am Yisroel.


We all make mistakes and we all sin, but let no one permit that fact to interfere with their obligations in avodas Hashem, for just as Rav Eizik Sher humbly explained to his talmid the thinking of the Yiddishe tochter and just as the Chasam Sofer humbly regretted his reaction to the conduct of his talmid, we, too, must react with anovah to what we perceive as transgressions of others. We, too, must look to find the good in others. We must work on our middos so that we adopt the middah of anovah.


When dealing with others and when judging others, we should not perceive ourselves as the chochom mikol odom, but rather as the onov mikol odom. That way, we will be true bnei Torah and talmidim of Moshe. We will also be fulfilling the dictum of the novi Michah (6:8), “He has said to you, what is Hashem’s definition of good, and what does Hashem demand from you, but only to do justice, to love kindness and to walk with humility with your G-d.”


Humility and acting justly, with honesty and loving-kindness, are outgrowths of walking with Hashem, as should be the desire and ambition of every frum person. If we would indeed tread this path, there would be so much love, achdus and shalom in the world. There would be such an abundance of kindness, justice and goodness that Moshiach would definitely be sent to end the golus. May it come to pass speedily in our time. Amein. 



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