The word “greatness” conjures in our imagination the loftiest of ambitions and ideals relegated to the crème de le crème of society. Oh, to be thought of in those terms catapults mortal man into a stratospheric status that few, if any, ever reach. Not limited by physical stature or geographical boundaries, it may include statesmen, ballplayers, musicians and artists from all walks of life. There are no rules, regulations or hierarchical body dictating proper procedures to confer status upon them. Metaphorically, greatness is akin to the tree falling in the forest that makes noise even if unheard. Mystical Jewish thinkers claim that in every generation there are 36 (lamed vavnik’s) individuals whose attributes are hidden from society yet the world exists solely due to their greatness balancing the forces of evil and darkness.
My son often tells me that success should not be results oriented, but rather it should be measured based on a disciplined approach to decision making. I recently turned on ESPN and heard the word “greatness” ascribed to LeBron James after he led his team to victory with less than one second remaining in the game. As amazing as his scoring prowess may be, in my estimation it would fail to meet my criteria for greatness. Had he missed his last second shot would he really be any less of a player? Was this one moment in time sufficient to catapult him to a level deserving of only the most elite? I’m not minimizing what he can do with a basketball, but does his athleticism really benefit the world and society?
Albert Einstein said, “Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” In other words, the fact that the majority of people disagree with you should never diminish your aspirations and on the contrary should be worn as a badge of courage to strengthen your determination to proceed. Or as Emerson wrote, “Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”
In perusing this week’s Torah portion, one may be left with an impression that the behavior of Aharon is worthy of criticism. Surely he knew of the second commandment: “Thou shall have no other Gods.” But instead of chastising the people, he tries to portray himself as a team player to gain their trust. Yes, he is the catalyst for collecting the gold which is from the Golden calf. Yes, his actions seem to lead to the death of over 3,000 of his subjects. I have no doubt that a 21st century subjective analysis by a group of rabbis would have categorically denied him access to their rabbinical assemblies. They would have cast aspersions upon him by declaring him to be either too radical, liberal, or even delusional.
I, however, perceive Aharon as the leader that best represents my ideals of greatness. He acted according to his values, beliefs and principles. He assessed the situation and determined that his course of action was indeed radical and to some may be unconscionable, but it did not prevent him from doing what he believed was in the best interest of his people. Yes, people died, but many more were saved due to his intervention. Aharon personifies the qualities that leaders in our generation would do well to emulate; to have the courage and conviction to act even against the sage advice of your peers. Instead of mirroring politicians and using polling data as your political advisor, instead of looking over your shoulder to gauge your support, look inward and then and only then can you hope to achieve greatness.
Rabbi Jack Engel