I get many opportunities, thank G-d, to teach in synagogues in different places. Recently, after giving a guest lecture, a young man approached me and thrust a large volume of the Talmud into my hands.
“Read this section,” he said curtly. I looked it over and told him it looked interesting and it was similar to the piece I had just taught from the Talmud.
“Yes, but you see that this Gemara says the opposite of the Gemara that you quoted,” he blurted out.
“Oh my, you are right,” I replied, “how curious.”
“Well I wrote a whole pilpul (Talmudic essay) on the apparent contradiction,” he continued, “but I’ll leave it with you for homework to figure it out.”
“Seriously?” I thought to myself, but to him of course I just smiled and said thank you.
Rabbi Yochanan taught: Wherever you find mentioned in the Torah the power of the Holy One, blessed be He, you also find his humility mentioned. This fact is stated in the Torah, repeated In the Prophets, and stated a third time in the Scriptures.
It is written in the Torah, “For the L-rd your G-d, he is the G-d of gods and L-rd of lords,” and it says immediately afterwards, “He performs justice for the fatherless and widow.” It is repeated in the Prophets, “For thus says the High and Lofty One, Who inhabits eternity and Whose name is holy,” and it says immediately afterwards, “I am with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit.” It is stated a third time in the Scriptures, as it is written, “Extol him that rides upon the heavens, whose name is the L-rd,” and immediately afterwards it is written, “father of orphans and a judge of widows.”
Who is powerful? What defines greatness? We think of greatness and power in terms of control – the more assets (human, material, physical) one controls, the more powerful one is. We think of greatness and power in terms of knowledge – the more information (Talmud, science, literature) one possesses, the more powerful one is.
That is not the Torah’s conception of power. How do you recognize power and greatness? In he who is humble. The person who needs to brandish his knowledge about has a long way to go to achieving greatness. In fact, greatness has nothing to do with how much you know or which tractates of the Talmud you can quote. Greatness, says the Talmud, is to be found in one’s ability to protect and care. As the classic adage goes, ‘nobody cares how much you know, they want to know how much you care.’
The Talmud equates this power to protect with humility. The Almighty’s true power is to be found in His humility. And His humility is to be found in His lovingkindness and care for the most downtrodden. G-d knows everything, but that’s not what makes Him great. To be an all-knowing G-d would not be very meaningful and helpful to His creatures. It’s wonderful and awesome, but not particularly helpful. The G-d who humbles Himself enough to care about His creatures – now that’s a meaningful expression of the Divine!
And that’s what He wants from us. Sure, we have to learn as much as we can. But that’s not the ultimate purpose of our existence. If it doesn’t lead to humility and lovingkindness, what’s the point of all that knowledge? True power and greatness means lowering yourself from that intense level of information and being prepared to serve the world.
Rabbi Chaim of Brisk was one of the greatest Talmudists of the twentieth century. He was once inquired as to the most important features of a rabbi. He replied “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”
You want to be powerful? Be comfortable enough in your own skin to accept the teachings of another without feeling the need to show how much you know. You want to be great? Figure out how you can help as many people in the world as possible! That is true greatness.