Recognizing Greatness

What greatness really means and how to comprehend it.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

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Young women study Torah
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Almost indiscriminately, we label things, experiences, and especially people as great, so much so that the designation is often meaningless. What does greatness really mean, and how can we understand it? Perhaps several verses in this week's Torah reading, Parshat Toldot, will give us some clarity.

Avimelech king of the Philistines has just found out that Rebecca is not Isaac’s sister but his wife. Avimelech then issues a decree that whoever touches Isaac or his wife will be put to death. Isaac then sows the land, reaps one hundredfold, as Hashem had blessed him.

Following this, we have the key verses to our discussion: “The man became great and kept becoming greater until he was very great. He had acquired flocks and herds and many enterprises; and the Philistines envied him.” (Bereishit 26:13-14)

Shortly thereafter, Isaac filed a complaint against the Philistines who had stopped up the wells his father Avraham had dug. Avimelech’s response is to banish Isaac, “For you have become much mightier than we.” Isaac leaves, redigs the wells and encounters the same ruthless Philistine reaction, until he finally digs a well that the Philistines do not fill with earth.

The first unusual thing we may notice is that a form of the word “great” appears three times in one verse. We may also note that while the verses immediately preceding and following the statement of Isaac’s greatness seem to refer to material riches, the particular verse proclaiming his progress toward greatness fails to mention any material component. Certainly there is more to greatness than that which meets the eye.

Rashi makes an interesting and cryptic comment concerning Isaac’s greatness: “That they used to say, ‘better the dung of his mules than the gold and silver of Avimelech’.” We will try to find some clarity to some of the issues raised in these verses and in Rashi’s comment.

We will begin by focusing on the dynamics at play between Isaac and the Philistines, a dynamic which signifies a model of the relationship between Jews and the nations among which we find ourselves during the Diaspora. As the Imrei Chen points out, we should try to live inconspicuously among the nations so as not to arouse their envy which would instigate negative behavior. (Later in our discussion we will see why this doesn’t necessarily work.) Further, follow Hashem’s instructions carefully. Hashem had instructed Isaac, “gur baaretz hazot – dwell (as an immigrant or stranger) in this land.” But the Torah testifies, “vayeshev shom – he settled there.” As such, when Isaac became so successful, the natives were envious, until Avimelech himself banished Isaac, saying, “You have become mighty from (than) us.”

The Imrei Chen then offers an interesting interpretation, based on the Netziv, to Avimelech’s initial decree about Isaac. That decree, that anyone who touches Isaac or his wife would be put to death, was not meant to protect Isaac, but was actually the first anti Semitic decree against anyone having contact with Isaac, even to doing business with him. As proof, the Imrei Chen offers that although Isaac was originally a shepherd, he had to go into agriculture and assorted other enterprises, for the citizens of Gerar would not engage in animal husbandry or business with him. But Hashem reassured Isaac that He was with him, and made Isaac hugely successful in farming and in other ventures. This is perhaps the first level of Isaac’s greatness.

But the Philistines were so jealous of Isaac that everything about him bothered them, not just his wealth, writes the Menachem Zion. Even his garbage, the excrement of his animals, was a source of their displeasure, for hatred needs no reason.  

Rabbi Birnbaum in Bekorei Shemo delves more deeply into the source of this envy. It is not our wealth but what we represent that bothers the gentile, for we are the nation that represents God on earth. When the verse speaks about Isaac’s greatness, writes Rabbi Birnbaum, it is not referring to Isaac’s wealth, but rather to his greatness in service to the Ribbonoh shel Olam. In this Isaac was able to grow in spite of his environment. As the Lashon Chasidim says, he practiced Torah precepts in all his business dealings, just as we are required to do. As Isaac’s wealth grew, so did his spirituality, for he was able to elevate every aspect of materialism to a spiritual level, and this is what angered the Philistines. The Menachem Zion then understands Rashi’s comment to mean that Isaac was able to take even the lowly dung and elevate it, whereas the gold and silver of Avimelech would still remain stagnant. As Rabbi Moshe Hofstadter points out, the dung can be used as fertilizer to create more wealth, while gold and silver cannot.

Rabbi Pincus in Tiferes Shimshon turns us in another direction. He notes that while the Torah relates several parts of the lives of both Avraham Avinu and Yaakov Avinu, it relates comparatively little about Isaac. Perhaps we can attribute this to the different characteristics each patriarch is associated with. Focusing just on Avraham and Isaac, Avraham is known for chessed, loving kindness, while Isaac is known for gevurah/pachad, power and awe.

Each patriarch reflected in his life that characteristic through which he identified with the Creator. Avraham taught that Hashem is the source of all our blessings, and so he shared all he had with others, teaching them that it all came from God. Isaac took that knowledge and added another layer. Not only do we acknowledge that all comes from God, but we are also then aware that Hashem can take it all away, and we must find a way to symbolically give it back. It is therefore incumbent upon us to return these gifts to Hashem, either through thanking Him for the gifts He has given us on loan, or suffering the challenges He may present us with that would force us to acknowledge Him.

These two processes were linked in the service in the Beit Hamikdash, the Temple. While the Kohanim offered the sacrifices upon the altar that would open the conduit for Hashem’s chessed (kindness) and blessings to come down to earth, the Levites would then return the offering through songs of thanks, as was their responsibility in the Beit Hamikdash service.

The verse states that Isaac grew in stature until he became gadol meod – very great. The Slonimer Rebbe notes that the numerical equivalent of meod is the same as mah, what, both equaling 45. In other words, one achieves greatness through asking, “what am I,” through humility. Each of our patriarchs had this humility, and therefore each was individually promised the land that was always called in the Torah Eretz Hachenaani (the Canaanite Land), the land which will flourish under those who submit themselves, nichna, to a Higher Authority. According to Rabbi Gamliel Horowitz in Tiv Hatorah, it was this humility that the Philistines saw and recognized as Isaac’s greatness, for Isaac understood that all the blessings Hashem showered upon him, even the excrement of his animals, were to be used in His service.

In Turning Ideas into Action, Rabbi Noach Orloweck provides proof of the relationship between humility and service to Hakadosh Boruch Hu. The priest’s daily service in the Beit Hamikdash began with the priest, dressed in his priestly garment, removing the ashes that had accumulated under the altar and taking them to a designated place outside the Sanctuary. This service, which seems to be little more than housecleaning, was nevertheless service, the humble service of the priest who was therefore required to wear those special garments, for he was after all beginning his day’s service to God.

Similarly, we acknowledge our debt to God when we thank Him each morning for another day of life, and when we bend our knees in submission as we pray the silent prayer, Shemoneh Esrei, and we recognize His kindness as we enter His house to pray.

The verse preceding the discussion of Isaac’s greatness recounts Isaac’s working in the field and Hashem’s blessing his work to yield 100 times what would be expected. One becomes great not by sitting back but by working and constantly striving to achieve greater heights. It is fitting then that Isaac is associated with the establishment of the afternoon Mincha service when he went out to converse with God in the field.  

Rabbi Belsky develops this idea more fully in Einei Yisroel where he writes that when Yaakov comes to get the blessing from Isaac, Isaac comments that he smells the aroma of the field. While many commentators explain this to mean that Isaac smelled the Garden of Eden when Yaakov entered, Rabbi Belsky interprets this to mean that Isaac sensed that through this son his own spiritual work, his toil in the fields, using even mundane, manual work toward spiritual ends, would be fulfilled.

Now we can return to discussing the repetition of “great” three times. Rabbi Weinberg in Shemen Hatov posits that the three “greats” are meant to parallel the three blessings Hashem gave to Abraham during the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac). There Hashem had promised Avraham that He would bless him, which He did during Avraham’s lifetime, that He would increase Avraham’s progeny, and that all the nations would be blessed through Avraham’s offspring. Now those other blessings were beginning to be actualized through Isaac.

Isaac was also achieving greatness around his community, and he was living a life that was sanctifying God’s name to others, albeit they envied him for it. It is not enough to be great in one’s private life. One must also be involved with one’s community and bring others closer to an awareness and appreciation of Hashem. Greatness is creating integrity in all aspects of one’s life so that others will recognize God’s attributes through your actions.

Rabbi Schrage Grosbard offers an additional insight into the process of achieving greatness. In Daas Schrage, he writes that greatness does not come in one swoop. Rather one achieves greatness incrementally, one step at a time, or else it will dissipate as quickly as it came. Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz provides proof for this idea by citing the Talmud that states that what a maidservant witnessed at the splitting of the sea was greater than what the great prophet Yechezkel saw. However, notes Rabbi Shmuelevitz, in spite of the great miracles she had witnessed, she remained a maidservant and never became a prophetess. She never went through the process of building one level of holiness upon another, from a strong foundation to a high spiritual building. Yechezkel, on the other hand, achieved greatness slowly until he merited seeing the very chariot and angels of God. Similarly, Isaac also never rested on his laurels, but continued building to reach ever higher levels of greatness.

Perhaps the Pharaoh of Abraham’s time was the paradigm for the Rashi we have been discussing. He gave his daughter Hagar to Abraham for a maidservant, sensing, as our Medrash points out, that it would be better for her to be a lowly maidservant in the spiritually exalted home of Abraham than to be a princess among the gold and silver of Pharaoh’s palace. Perhaps we need to examine the environment we ourselves are in and the step heavenward we are on, focus on the steps we still need to climb so that we can merit approaching the spiritual greatness of being the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.