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True Greatness

Shmot (Exodus 1:1-6:1 )

by Rabbi Yissocher Frand

And the king of Egypt said to the midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah. (1:15)

When Pharaoh decreed that all newborn Jewish boys should be drowned, two heroic midwives saved the day. One was named Shifrah and the other Puah. Rashi explains that these two women were none other than Yocheved, Moshe's mother, and Miriam, his sister. Why then were they called Shifrah and Puah? Yocheved was called Shifrah because she was meshaferes es havlad, she beautified the infants and smoothed their limbs. Miriam was called Puah because she was poah umedaberes livlad, she cooed and whispered to the infants.

It seems strange that the special names the Torah gives Yocheved and Miriam memorialize the care they showed to the infants. These women actually saved their lives. If it weren't for them, those infants would have been drowned. Shouldn't they then have been given names that memorialize their heroic rescue of the Jewish children? Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to name them Hatzalah and Teshuah, for example?

My Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, always used to say that true greatness is manifested in the little things, the low-profile actions that reveal the depth of character and commitment. It is not enough to perform heroic acts that grab the headlines, so to speak. People of lesser worth can also find it within themselves to rise to the occasion for that one moment of heroism and perform acts of greatness. But it is a superficial greatness, because after the deed is done, they revert to ordinariness. They pat themselves on the back and say, "All right, I've done my duty. I've risked my life and saved the world, and now it's time to go home and get on with my life." A meteoric rise and a descent to earth. True greatness, however, is expressed in small but extraordinary deeds. These two heroic women, Shifrah and Puah, were pulling Jewish children to safety in a time of mortal danger, yet they had the sensitivity and the presence of mind to take the time to beautify their little bodies and to soothe their little souls with coos and whispers. This was true greatness.

The Talmud reports (Avodah Zarah 18a) that Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma taught Torah in public despite a Roman decree forbidding anyone to do so under the penalty of death. One day, Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion visited him.

"Don't you know," asked Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, "that Heaven granted [the Romans] their power? How can you flaunt their decrees?"

"I rely on the mercy of Heaven," Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma replied. "Tell me, will I have a share in the next world?"

"Have you ever done anything outstanding?" asked Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion.

"Yes, I have," said Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma responded. "I once had charity as well as my own money in the same pocket. They got mixed up, and I didn't know which was which. So I gave everything to charity."

"If so," said Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, "may my own portion be as great as your portion, and may my destiny be as great as yours."

What can we make of this conversation? Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma is risking his life to teach Torah in public. He will probably die a horrible death at the hands of the Romans if he is apprehended. Yet this great act of heroism doesn't seem to guarantee him a share in the next world. What worthy act convinces Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion that Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma has earned a share in the next world? That he gave his own money to charity when it got mixed up with charity money! Amazing!

We see clearly from this Gemara how true greatness is measured. Headline-grabbing acts of heroism are not absolute proof of true greatness. On the other hand, giving away one's own money when it gets mixed up with charity money will never get a headline. In fact, no one will ever know about it. Such an act shows what a person is really made of. Such an act is a sure sign of true greatness.


And she opened [the box] and saw the boy, and behold, he was crying, and she took pity on him and said, "This is a Hebrew boy." (Shemos 2:6)

Pharaoh's daughter Basya went down to the river to bathe, and she caught sight of a box floating among the bulrushes. She sent her attendants to fetch the box, opened it and saw a baby boy crying, and she said, "This is a Hebrew boy."

How did she know this? What made her conclude that the infant Moshe was a Hebrew child? It was not his appearance. It was not the sound of his crying. It was simply the conditions of his discovery. Why was a child adrift in a box on the river? It must be that his parents were trying to save him from Pharaoh's decree of death to all male Jewish infants.

Basya's logic was excellent, and she guessed right. But it seems to have taken her a while to figure it out. As soon as she saw that the box contained a boy, she should have realized that he was Jewish. But apparently, this is not what happened. According to the Torah, she noticed that "he was crying, and she took pity on him" and only afterward did she say, "This is a Hebrew boy." What took her so long?

Rav Nissan Alpert offered a beautiful solution to this question in the context of his eulogy for his rebbi, Rav Moshe Feinstein. Rav Moshe was universally recognized as by far the greatest Torah scholar of his time. His knowledge was vaster than vast, his insight razor sharp and his humility, sensitivity and kindness legendary. One might have thought it would be very difficult for a young scholar to receive a haskamah, a letter of approbation, for a new sefer from such a towering sage, but just the opposite was true. Rav Moshe gave haskamos readily and easily to just about anyone who asked for them. He also gave letters of recommendation and letters of endorsement for all sorts of projects with the same ease. It came to the point that people were no longer impressed by a letter from Rav Moshe, so easy were they to come by. Why did he do this? Why wasn't he more discriminating when it came to writing letters on behalf of people?

Rav Alpert explained that chessed, kindness, and emes, truth, are not really compatible concepts. Kindness flows from the heart. It is an instinctive emotional response. Truth is established by the brain. It is the product of scrutiny, investigation and logic. In a certain sense, truth is the antagonist of kindness. If we would do a thorough investigation of poor people that ask for charity we would probably reject most of them.

Indeed, when chessed and emes are mentioned together in the Torah (Bereishis 24:49; Shemos 34:6; Yehoshua 2:14), the word chessed always precedes the word emes. Chessed is quick and instinctive. Emes is deliberate and thorough. If chessed would wait for emes, it would never get off the ground.

A person's first reaction must be kindness. Only afterward should he set off in search for the truth. When a beggar asks for a handout, don't wait until you check out his credentials. Give him something right away. When an institution needs financial assistance, don't call for an audit to determine exactly what the problem is. When a young author comes for an approbation, give it to him! This was Rav Moshe's philosophy in life.

When Basya opened the box and saw the boy, concludes Rav Alpert, her first reaction wasn't to assess the situation, to consider who the child's parents were and why he was adrift on the river, to determine if it would be appropriate to rescue him. Her first reaction was kindness. "He was crying, and she took pity on him." Before she gave any thought to the situation, her kind heart went out to the crying child. Only afterward did she stop to consider the situation, and she came to the correct conclusion that "this is a Hebrew boy."

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