How To Become Great
Beshalach (Exodus 13:17-17:16 )
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One of the secrets of human greatness is knowing where to direct our limited energy and time in order to make an imprint on the world and transform ourselves. Because our resources are finite, we need to think strategically; we need to focus our attention on the things that have maximum impact. The question is: what kind of actions have maximum impact?
The Torah, God's own handbook on living the best life, can give us direction. In this week's parsha, Beshalach, we encounter one of the most inspiring and illuminating moments in Jewish history - the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. The Jewish people have left Egypt amid a swirl of miraculous supernatural events. Pharaoh then decides to bring us back to slavery and pursues us to the edge of the sea. The Jewish people are hemmed in by the vast expanse of water on one side and by the Egyptian army on the other, and God splits the sea, enabling the Jewish people to pass through on dry land, with the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the depths when they try to follow. In the aftermath of this miracle, which arrives on top of all of the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, the Jewish people spontaneously break out in song, declaring: "This is my God and I will glorify Him." (Exodus 15:2) Our sages explain that the word "this" indicates they had such a degree of prophetic insight that they were, in a manner of speaking, able to point to God, and perceive Him with a clarity that even the greatest prophets in later generations were unable to experience.
The phrase: "And I will glorify Him" - in Hebrew, "v'anveihu" - is a gateway to understanding how best to direct our efforts for how to change the world. The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) points out that v'anveihu actually comprises two words: "Ani v'hu - me and him." The Talmud explains this is teaching us a fundamental lesson on how to live: "Be similar to Him - just as God is gracious and compassionate, you too should be gracious and compassionate." In other words, the way we glorify God is by being compassionate, like Him.
What does this mean practically? The Torah says: "You shall follow God your Lord" (Devarim 13:5). The Gemara (Sotah 14a) defines this as follows: just as Hashem clothes the naked, visits the sick, comforts the mourner and buries the dead, so too should we strive to follow Him in these endeavours, emulating His kindness and compassion.
The Talmud gives examples for each of these acts of kindness: God clothed Adam and Eve when they realised they were naked; He visited Abraham when he was recovering from his late-life circumcision; He comforted Isaac after the death of his mother, Sarah; and He buried Moses.
The Rambam includes chessed, kindness, among the list of positive commandments (mitzvah number eight), based on another verse: "You shall walk in the ways of God." We see that in Judaism, doing kindness, chessed, isn't just a nice thing to do. As one of the 613 commandments, it is no less than an obligation.
And here's the crucial factor - chessed is the only one of the 613 commandments where the source of the mitzvah is the conduct of Hashem, Himself. For all of the other mitzvot, God says "this is what you should do" or "this is what you shouldn't do". But when it comes to chessed, Hashem says: "Do what I do." From here, we learn something very profound: to be kind is to be Godly. When we are kind, we are doing God's work on this earth. And that's the real power of chessed: its source is the source of all power. Rooted in God's own behaviour, it has the capacity to create and transform worlds. This explains why chessed is considered one of the "three things on which the world stands". (Pirkei Avot 1:2) Let's probe a bit deeper into this mitzvah of emulating our Creator through acts of kindness.
Firstly, the idea of following God's example by alleviating human suffering is an expression of being - as the Talmud puts it - a "partner with God in creation". (Shabbat 10a) God created the world in six days, but it didn't end there. The work of "creating" the world - of nurturing and sustaining human life, of making the world a better, kinder place - is an ongoing concern. And, as God's partners, we are part of this process, we help drive it. Through simple acts of kindness, we change the lives of others, and by fulfilling our God-given mandate to do so, we create cosmic change in ourselves. We become Godly.
We see this on a practical level. Time and again, even a small act of kindness, a greeting, a gesture, a smile, a telephone call, a visit, will transform a person's day. Or even that person's entire life. Showing warmth and kindness and comfort to someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one, or who is facing a serious illness, can change a life. Helping a person going through difficulties with emotional support, but also physical and material support, can change a life. Acts of kindness are soft and gentle, but their impact is powerful and awesome.
And it goes beyond the effect we have on others. When we alleviate another's pain, ease another's burden, put another's troubled mind at rest, meet someone else's basic emotional, psychological or physical needs, it transforms not just the recipient of our kindness - it transforms us. The language of the Talmud is key: we should be compassionate because God himself is compassionate. This speaks not just to the acts of kindness we perform (the world outside ourselves), but also to who we are as people - our interior world. Being compassionate is about self-transformation, with the ultimate goal of becoming greater, more elevated human beings.
Ultimately, the mitzvah of kindness and compassion is about striving for a certain commonality and alignment with God. It's a radical idea - that we can be God-like - but it's made possible by our essential makeup as human beings. We are God-like in our essence. The Torah says we are created in God's image; that our souls are in some way a reflection of the Divine. This is the unique feature of the human being. Indeed, nurturing and giving expression to that image of God within us is the very purpose for which the world was created, which is why, says the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a), the human being was created last, as the very pinnacle of creation.
We see that through simple acts of kindness - emotional support, physical assistance, warmth, praise - we are recognising and upholding the Tzelem Elokim, "the image of God", in our fellow. And we are cultivating it within ourselves. Ultimately, being kind and compassionate fits into a beautiful, intricate pattern. By emulating God, we forge a connection with our Creator, and with our fellow human beings. And by making the world a kinder, gentler place and improving the lot of those around us, we nurture their souls, their Tzelem Elokim; and we nurture our own souls, our Tzelem Elokim, our God-given greatness.