Jewish Journal

What Is Greatness?

Parshat Matot (Numbers 30:2-32:42)

by Rabbi Asher Brander

Posted on Jul. 28, 2005 at 8:00 pm

As I sit in the heartland of Israel, surrounded by simple and beautiful people, I am constantly amazed at the kindness, the goodness and the utter simplicity of the average Israeli Jew. It is hard to pinpoint why their lives seem to be so greatly enriched even as they struggle to eke out a simple subsistence living. I cannot help but to contemplate a definition of that greatness.


And yet, the great personal tragedy of Moshe is hard to miss -- especially in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). As the book commences, Moshe -- an incredibly unlikely candidate -- has already accomplished the impossible of bringing freedom to an entire nation, uniting them to receive the Torah, defending them in times of crisis and now safely perching them on edge of the land of Israel. Moshe can taste the ultimate fulfillment of his destiny as leader of the Jewish people.

One senses the pulsating excitement as Moshe invites his father-in-law, Yitro, to join him on this triumphant march toward the land of Israel. Nosim anachnu el hamakom. "We are traveling to the place. Come join us." We, both the Children of Israel and myself are all entering the Promised Land. At this point one feels that nothing can stop the rendezvous with ultimate destiny.

Indeed, the rabbis in the midrash relate that had this march been successful, the Jews would never have experienced the bitter taste of exile. Moses' entrance into the land of Israel would have ushered in the Messsianic Era, once and forever.

It was not to be. One sin creeps upon the next, and finally the sin of the spies seal the fate of the Children of Israel. A sense of hopelessness pervades and the Children of Israel display intermittent episodes of anger, resentment and even outright rebellion toward their great leader, Moshe. Shortly thereafter, Moshe loses his personal right of entry into the Land of Israel. As the people, so goes the leader.

Thus concludes the tragedy of Moshe, the singular personality who literally gives up his family life and merges his own personal identity with that of the Jewish people. He is denied the success he so passionately desired.

And yet, Moshe remains the greatest leader of the Jewish people. He was the vehicle for the Jew, and, ultimately, the world receiving the Torah. Indeed, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) considers Moshe's unique prophetic status as being one of the 13 primary principles of Jewish faith. So how do we reconcile the notion of the tragic Moshe with the great Moshe?

One of the more poignant moments of this incredibly tragic book of Bamidbar is the moment in our parsha, Matot, that God delivers to Moshe his final command: "Avenge the Midianites and then you shall return to your nation."

Moshe's death will follow shortly thereafter. It is thus only pragmatic that Moshe would delay the implementation of the command. Would Moshe not want another stab at overturning the Divine Will so perhaps he can enter his beloved Israel? Yet Moshe does not delay. Rather he submits to the Divine will. Perhaps it is this consistent and constant refrain that marks Moshe's life that is the true definition of greatness.

I have often thought that one of the major values of Western society is the value of results, of tangible accomplishment. Bluntly, the bottom line is the bottom line.

"To the victor goes the spoils" is the modus operandi. In stark contrast, Judaism exalts the process, the struggle over the result. It is interesting to note that the very word Israel means to wrestle with God.

Most of the great Jews that I know toil in the cloak of anonymity -- leading wholly ordinary lives laden with challenges and frustrations of normal human existence.

Their greatness lies in their ability to perceive the Divine in every situation and their desire to do what is right rather than what is purely pragmatic. As I reconnect with old friends who have made aliyah, I realize it was that very process that brought most of my Ivy League educated highly successful professionals to "give up" their cushy jobs for simpler jobs that produce far less cash and convenience but perhaps yields something even greater -- greatness.

Asher Brander is the rabbi of Westwood Kehilla, founder of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and long-time teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles High Schools.


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