A person is obligated to say:
“The world was created for me” (Talmud – Sanhedrin 37a), and
“When will my deeds reach the level of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?”
The Torah attitude is that we are obligated to be aware of our greatness. Feel proud that you are created in the image of the Almighty. Pride in the elevation of your soul is not only proper, but is actually an obligation to recognize your virtues and to live with this awareness.
(Toras Avraham, p.49; Gateway to Happiness, p.119)
-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Recognize Your Greatness”
I sometimes wonder when reading quotes from Orthodox Jewish sources if the author meant for a Gentile to take any of that advice. After all, I can only assume that the primary audience of Aish.com are Jews. Did Rabbi Pliskin mean “greatness as a Jew” when he wrote “greatness as a human being?”
Then again, Rabbi Pliskin is a noted psychologist as well as a Rabbi, author, and lecturer, so perhaps he really does mean that all human beings have the capacity of being great because we were all created in the image of Hashem.
Along the same lines, Rabbi Pliskin also wrote:
Rabbi Shlomo of Karlin used to say:
“The worst fault a person can have is to forget his intrinsic greatness as a human being.”
(Dor Daiah, vol. 1, p.172; Rabbi Pliskin’s Gateway to Happiness, p.131)
I’m used to thinking that certain people are great and the rest of us are “Okay”. Abraham was great. Moses was great as well as exceeding humble (Numbers 12:3). Given the Biblical record as well as the long chronicle of human history, it’s difficult to imagine that the majority of the people across time possess “intrinsic greatness”. Frankly, it’s easier to imagine that most people have a talent for being an “intrinsic pain-in-the-neck”, myself included.
But then again, some people are more optimistic than others:
Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.
Believe you can and you’re halfway there.
Of course, William James, Theodore Roosevelt, or even Rabbi Pliskin aren’t quoting directly from scripture, so perhaps they aren’t seeing human beings the way God sees us.
Or maybe I’m being cynical. I can see, at least in theory, that God most likely wants us all to live up to our highest potential, to be the very best people we can be, the people He created us to be. It’s just that none of us seem to live up to our very highest potential, at least most of the time.
Someone wrote to the Aish Ask the Rabbi column asking about certain Orthodox Rabbis who are caught committing illegal and immoral acts, such as bribing public officials. The Aish Rabbi responded in part:
First things first: The Torah is the guidebook for ethical perfection. All the values that the Western world takes for granted – education, equal rights, sanctity of life – are from the Torah. That is an inarguable fact of history.
Being orthodox does not guarantee that a person has succeeded in internalizing what he has been taught.
I would say that all Jews – religious and not – do not follow the Torah 100%. Everyone does the best he can, some making more of an effort than others. But no one is perfect.
But I would also say that almost without exception, an individual will be more kind, charitable and moral because he learns Torah and follows it.
The question is not: Why do some religious Jews behave badly? The better question – and this is what I ask myself whenever I see an Orthodox person doing something wrong – is: Would the same individual behave worse, or behave better, if he was not religious?
This feels a little bit like a “dodge” to me. It sounds like the Rabbi is saying that as bad as some religious Jewish people may be in terms of how they behave immorally and unethically, if they didn’t have their training in Torah, they would be so much worse.
Would they? I don’t know.
I do agree that, although we Gentile believers are not called upon Biblically to replicate a Jew’s observance of the mitzvot, we do have our own Torah for the nations which assigns all humanity with valuing the underlying principles, the very foundation of Torah.
We are all called upon to do good and, as the Aish Rabbi says (I’ll extrapolate his sentence beyond its context and apply it to all humanity), no one obeys the Torah principles and mitzvot as they/we are called to obey with anywhere near 100% fidelity.
The Aish Rabbi says that because one Orthodox Rabbi committed immoral acts does not mean that the Torah failed, just that one human being has failed. Rather than throwing the Torah and a religious life out the window because people don’t and can’t live up to God’s standards perfectly, we should strive to be better tomorrow than we are today. Obedience is a journey, not a mountain top where you sit sagely because you are always right.
On the other hand, the journey of obedience isn’t a pit or a cave where you are trapped forever because you are always wrong and can never succeed either.
Or so intimates the Aish Rabbi.
The Rabbi finishes his answer by saying:
I would also argue that if you are looking for a role model of righteousness, you are far more likely to find it in a great religious person than in the secular world. The act of purifying oneself through prayer, study, mitzvah performance, and devotion to helping others to reach the heights of Godliness.
True, the observant community does not exist in a hermetically-sealed bubble protected from all negative influences. But given a choice of one or the other, I think the choice is clear.
I suppose if we could receive an unfiltered and unedited view of the life of any person we might think of as a “role model of righteousness,” we’d be disappointed in them, at least in some sense. If no one is perfect, then all people have failed; they’ve failed other people, and they’ve failed God.
I once was at an event where a highly esteemed gentleman had just finished speaking to an audience, and many members of that audience heaped praises upon him. I was a little surprised at what I perceived as his lack of humility. I got the opportunity to speak to him about it, and he responded, “People need heroes.”
I think I understand what he was saying, but it still bothers me a little. I know Moses had this one down pat, but how can you connect to your “intrinsic greatness” while also knowing what a schlub you are inside?
I don’t mean “you” or any other specific human being. I don’t have an unfiltered, unedited view into anyone else’s life except my own. That’s why this whole concept of “greatness” is difficult for me to understand.
I almost said that if I could talk to Moses for five minutes (assuming we had a common language), he could explain it to me, but our lives are absolutely incomparable. After all, who can live up to a man like Moses, who talked with God “face-to-face” as it were? Not me.
Even Moses had his faults, some of them as large as the life of greatness he led. But that being said, where does that leave the rest of us?