Greatness: A Jewish Definition

by | Jun 19, 2015 | 0 comments

Determination and strong backbone can be the ingredients of true greatness or it can be the prelude to stupidity.

I watched a documentary while on vacation. It made such an impression on me that I must share the inspiration.

“Into Thin Air” is a gripping account of the 1996 Everest mega wipe-out. It is a true story about an diverse group of men and women that joined together in Nepal to go on an expedition to the top of Mount Everest. There was a Japanese businesswoman, a pathologist, a mailman and nine others that paid $65,000 to realize the greatest dream of their life; to stand on top of the Earth. They met with their well-seasoned guides and the rest of their expedition at the foot of the mountain. They were told about camp one, camp two, camp three and camp four. Mount Everest stands just shy of 30,000 feet high. This is the average altitude of a 747 while crossing the ocean. The wind chill factor averages 100 degrees below zero. From camp three upward it is impossible to survive without oxygen. One wrong step means immediate death. Reaching the top of the mountain is called “summiting”. This is the goal. Ninety percent of those that set out to climb the mountain do not summit. Many of those that do summit never come home. “Into Thin Air” is a sad story because five of the climbers didn’t make it home.

We consider people that attempt this climb heroes. They possess some of the loftiest attributes known to mankind – perseverance, self-confidence, will power and a drive that is almost spiritual.

I was shaken by the presentation. Why did they climb the mountain? Why did a man whose wife was in her ninth month of pregnancy decide to undertake one of the most dangerous feats attempted by man? When the first man slipped and tumbled 10,000 feet into an ice gorge to his death, why didn’t they all turn back? When they reached camp 3 and saw skeletons and evidence of hundreds of years of death on the mountain why did they keep on going? When they were gasping for air and saw that they were running out of oxygen why did they continue? Why? “Because it was there!” They needed the satisfaction of touching a flagpole at the top of the mountain. They needed to have their picture taken and get their name in some obscure almanac that nobody reads. Maybe, with great luck, they would end up on some daytime TV free access cable talk show.

As the documentary ended something new dawned on me. Mesiras Nefesh, determination and strong backbone can be the ingredients of true greatness or it can be the prelude to stupidity. It is foolish to risk harm to yourself, your family and all those around you in order to “summit”.

Now let me tell you another story. Korach was a smart man. He was a wealthy man. As a Levite in Egypt he didn’t have to work, instead he became an Egyptologist and discovered one of Joseph’s buried treasures in Egypt. He was a respected man. Korach was one of the bearers of the Aron, the Holy Ark. But there was a mountain he needed to climb. He needed to stand on top of the earth. He needed the positions of Moshe and Aharon. He needed to summit! He and his people and his wealth plummeted to the lowest gorge on earth and then fell down even further.

Herein lays the difference between Moshe and Korach, between the tzaddik and the fool, between the leader and the egomaniac. Moshe Rabeinu didn’t need to summit. He was a humble man. When he was a prince in Egypt, he did the right thing. When he was a shepherd of his father-in-law Yisro, he did the right thing. When he returned to Egypt, when he stood at the Yam Suf, he always did the right thing. He rose to the top; he didn’t climb to the top. Even when he climbed Har Sinai he paced himself with humility. He had no need to summit. Moshe rose to the top and stayed there; Korach climbed to the top and fell.

For us we must examine and re-examine our goals. Just because we are acting with perseverance, courage and self-sacrifice it doesn’t mean that we are acting with nobility. We can be driven, but to what end? We can persevere but there must be a just purpose.

In Yiddishkeit getting to the top of the corporate ladder is not what’s important ??” it’s what you do on each rung. When we build our lives and homes, success is not about heroism but about integrity. In a relationship mesiras nefesh, determination and courage are needed to do the simple right things, to be honest, to care and to build a Bayis Neeman B’Yisroel.

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has been a leading force in Jewish community and Jewish education for over forty years. He lived and taught in the United States, Australia and in Israel. He is presently the Rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, a vibrant community in the center of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, and serves as the Rabbinic guide to many of its wonderful organisations.


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