What defines someone as “Great”?

In the Torah world we refer to a leader as a Gadol. Someone who is great. The word Gadol has a number of meanings. We use it to mean large or big. We use it to mean great and we also use it to refer to an adult as opposed to a child. In Talmudic terms, a Gadol is one who is above Bar or Bat Mitzvah age, as opposed to a Koton, one who is underage.

This week we read about the beginning of slavery of the Jewish people, the birth of Moshe and his path to becoming the leader of the Jewish people. The Torah relates Vayigdal hayeled – and the child grew up and was brought to the daughter of Pharaoh. The very next verse says “Vayigdal Moshe” and Moshe grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens. Why does it say “he grew up” twice? Rabbi Yissocher Frand explains that the first time it means Moshe grew up physically, the second time refers to a spiritual maturation, a change of status. Moshe went from the status of a child to the status of a “Gadol”. Moshe is living as a Prince in the Pharaoh’s palace yet he chooses to take part in the suffering of his fellow Jews. He doesn’t ignore their plight, he joins them and feels their pain.

Rabbi Shimon Shkop  (1860-1939) expands on the concept of a Gadol. When a child is a baby, he only thinks about himself. I need. I am hungry. I want. As the child matures, he develops the capacity to think about others and is able to expand the “I”. We expand the I to include our family and maybe even our friends. The more one can expand the “I”, the more people you can include in your ”I”, then the bigger you are and the more of a Gadol you are. Unfortunately, some people never truly mature. They are still only thinking in terms of themselves even when they are adults. Even though they have physically matured, they have not truly become a Gadol in the sense of growing beyond their own selves.

A true leader is referred to as a Gadol because they care about each individual, they have expanded their “I” to include everyone. Stories abound of our sages who felt that while others were in pain or distress, it would not be right to continue to live with all of the usual comforts. A classic case is Moshe himself who later on during the battle of Amalek refuses to sit on a cushion, because how could he be comfortable while the people are in the midst of battle. I am sure Moshe would not have been vacationing in the Caribbean had he been here today.

We too can each be a Gadol by including as many people as possible in our “I”. If we think about others as an extension of ourselves then we will care more about their feelings and their needs. We will conduct ourselves in ways that show we are part of them not apart from them.This week, the Jewish world lost a true Gadol, HaRav Matisyahu Salomon, zt”l, the Mashgiach Ruchani of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood. We were privileged to have Rav Salomon speak to the Jewish community at the SJCC in July, 2003 during JET’s Yarchei Kallah program. Below is a short message from the Orthodox Union mourning his passing.

דברי חכמים בנחת נשמעים (Koheles 9:17). “The words of the wise are best heard when spoken softly.” Since arriving in the United States in 1998, Rav Matisyahu’s calm and pleasant voice spoke to the hearts of our community. His mussar teachings raised the level of spiritual striving and avodas Hashem of our most dedicated and accomplished Torah students and scholars, while his community-wide addresses on contemporary issues provided incisive, practical, and uplifting perspective and guidance. In his personal life and manner, the Mashgiach was a model of dignity, diligence, personal modesty, and profound sensitivity, as he made himself approachable and available to an unending stream of individuals who sought his counsel and support. וינחם אותם וידבר על לבם (Bereishis 50:21). “He comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts.”

His was a life of kiddush Hashem exactly as described by the Rambam (Yesodei Hatorah 5:11), “personally careful and deliberate, speaking pleasantly with others and sensitively connecting to them, interacting faithfully with people, studying Torah at all times and acting beyond the letter of the law without alienating others, such that all praise him, love him, and strive to emulate him.”

Rav Matisyahu’s elevating presence will be sorely missed but his teachings and personal example will continue to instruct and inspire us to live lives defined and refined by Torah and its values.

Yehi zichro baruch. May his memory be a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shaps and the JET Team