In Kedoshim, the portion of the Torah that teaches us how to be holy, we learned that being a holy person, is primarily focussed on interpersonal relationships. The classic themes of holiness refer to asceticism, a serious demeanor, and so on, may be part of the picture, however, if an apparently holy person shows a flaw in interpersonal relationships, there is something fundamentally wrong. He or she couldn’t be holy.
Rav Meir Yechiel, The Ostrover Rav, (d. 1928) was a giant in Torah. His magnum opus “Meir Einei Chachamim” presents volumes of outstanding scholarship. He was once asked how it was that he became so great in Torah. Surprisingly, the Rav answered that he knew exactly why.
He related that his father had been a baker. He was a poor man and most of his livelihood came from making challa for his community for Shabbos. He would stay up all night, every Thursday night, in order to make enough challa for his customers on Erev Shabbos. As he worked hard kneading his dough, he would cry and daven that he would make enough money to pay his son’s teachers so that he would be able to grow in Torah. As he kneaded, the tears would fall into the dough. The Ostrover Rav told how, as a child, he would run to eat the challa baked with his father’s tears. He held that it was the tears in the challa that enabled him to become great in Torah.
Once the Ostrover Rav was on vacation in the Swiss mountains when he had a chance meeting with the Rabbi of Rabbis, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodinsky. Rav Chaim Ozer was considered the greatest scholar and Rav of the generation. Upon meeting the the Osterover, Rav Chaim Ozer said he had heard that the Ostrover Rav was a ‘gavra rabba’, a great man, and perhaps he would therefore share with him a a new Torah thought.
As a contextual note, this was the period of the beginning of Agudas Yisroel, an organization that proposed to hand leadership decisions to the “Gedolim’ or great Torah leaders of the generation. This represented a new phase in the history of European Jewry. The term ‘gavra rabba’ therefore had a new context pertaining to the new phase of Torah leadership. Rav Chaim Ozer was interested in the Ozerover, as he heard that he indeed was a ‘Gavra Rabba’, a “great man”..
The Ostrover Rav demurred and did not wish to tell over a new thought to one so great as Rav Chaim Ozer. After all, what Torah thought can he possibly find a that the Vilna Rav was not yet familiar with?
The Ostrover was also taken aback by being referred to as a ‘Gavra Rabba’ and commented that the term ‘gavra rabba’ referred specifically to someone who helps other people, and relieves their suffering. On encountering some surprise the Ostrover Rav presented his prooftext.
The Talmud in tractate Makkos comments on the ‘foolish people in Bavel, who stand before a Sefer Torah but not before a ‘gavra rabba’ (referring to a Torah scholar).’ The Talmud goes on to say that the greatness of their scholarship is evident in the fact that they knew that although the Torah explicitly states that a transgressor should receive forty lashes, in practice he should only receive thirty nine.
However, noted the Ostrover Rav, if the Talmud only identified the greatness of the scholars by their brilliant reduction of lashes, they didn’t need to go all the way to Parshas Ki Seitzei where lashes are discussed. They could have inferred the same from our earlier parsha, Emor. Here the Torah says to count 50 days from the second day of Pesach, and the scholars taught that we need only count forty nine!
Said the Ostrover Rav, we see that term “great man” did not refer to a scholar that can reduce numbers, but rather to a scholar that can reduce pain. Greatness lies in how we treat others.