True Greatness

Vayehi ba’yamim ha’heim vayigdal Moshe (Shemos 2:11)

Many people claim that their goal in life is to achieve greatness, to become an adam gadol (great person). However, questioning them as to their understanding of the specific benchmark used to measure one’s success will yield wildly varying answers. Some will define its attainment by the size of their bank account and the amount of respect they command from others. Others will claim that it is to be measured by one’s interpersonal skills and the acts of kindness that a person performs for others. Another group may argue that it means becoming a wise Torah scholar. How does Judaism define greatness?

The Torah tells us that Moshe grew up, went out and saw the suffering of his Jewish brethren, and rescued one of them from the hands of his oppressor by killing his Egyptian taskmaster. The Maharal points out that while all children naturally grow up and become physically bigger, the Torah is teaching us that the true meaning of “growing up” is the ability and willingness to share in the pain and suffering of others and to allay it whenever possible.

We have learned thus far that growing up and becoming great is associated with the ability to feel compassion and empathy for others. How do we know that this is the true definition and benchmark by which greatness is measured?

The Shelah Hakadosh writes that if a person wishes to know the true inner meaning of any word, he need only examine the meaning of that word the first time it appears in the Torah. Searching for the word “gadol,” we needn’t go too far. It first appears in Bereishis 1:16, where the Torah relates that Hashem made the large light — the sun — to rule by day and the smaller one — the moon — to dominate by night. On a simple level, it would appear that the first use of this word merely refers to the mundane fact that the sun is physically larger than the moon, hardly inspiring in our search to understand the Torah’s definition of greatness.

However, Harav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik notes that in searching for some deeper significance, we must consider the scientific relationship between the sun and the moon. To the naked, uneducated eye, it would seem that the sun provides our light during the day and the moon by night. However, we all learned in science that this isn’t exactly accurate, as the moon is incapable of independently generating its own light. More correctly, the sun gives us light during the day, and at night the moon reflects the sun’s light. In this sense, the sun is the giver and the moon is the receiver.

Applying this understanding to people, we realize that the Torah is teaching us a profound lesson. In our quest for true greatness, we must bear in mind that success isn’t measured by how hard we work, pray or study Torah, but by how much we emulate the “great” sun by sharing our warmth and light with others.

Q: Why is no mention made of the names of Moshe’s parents, who obviously had great merits and holiness and yet are generically referred to (2:1) as a man and woman from Shevet Levi?

Q: Rashi writes (3:18) that when Moshe was nervous about whether the Jewish people would accept him as Hashem’s agent to redeem them, Hashem reassured him by telling him that when he announced himself using the phrase “pakod yifkod — Hashem will remember you,” they would trust in him because Yosef gave the Jews a tradition (Bereishis 50:25) that the redeemer would identify himself using this “secret password.” What value could a secret password possibly have if the entire population was aware of it and capable of using it?

A: The Kehillas Yitzchak explains that although Moshe was the leader and redeemer of the Jewish people, who ascended to Heaven to receive the Torah and performed unprecedented miracles, the Torah wants to prevent the false ideas which would be promulgated by other religions in the future by stressing that the man who saved the Jewish people was just that: a man. He was a human who was born to regular human parents. Alternatively, Harav Moshe Feinstein (Darash Moshe) explains that the Torah doesn’t give Moshe’s parents any praise for merely bringing such a special child into the world. Only in next week’s parashah, when Moshe had grown up and matured to a level where Hashem selected him to be the redeemer of the Jewish people and receiver of the Torah, did the Torah mention (6:20) the names of his parents to extol them for taking his tremendous raw potential and raising him in a manner which allowed it to be translated into action.

A: The Ramban and the Steipler suggest that an integral part of Yosef’s assurance that the Jews would be redeemed by a savior who would use this expression was a guarantee that no charlatan would ever exploit it and that the first person to invoke this phrase would be Hashem’s legitimate emissary.

Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email