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When Great Men Fall

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Russell, one of the leading philosophers of the 20th century and the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, was maintaining that what a person studies and teaches need have no bearing on his behavior.

This is the polar opposite of the Torah viewpoint. Torah knowledge and Jewish leadership is sine qua non with Torah living. Torah study is not so much about pedantic learning, flawless logic and cerebral chess as it is about refining and purifying one’s rudimentary, crude being.

According to the Vilna Gaon the raison d’être of Torah is self-perfection – to serve as a vehicle for rectifying one’s character traits. The objective of Torah study is to form a Torah-ingrained personality. What one studies and teaches must become an integral part of his or her life.

The first Jewish powerhouse was Avraham Avinu. The progenitor of the Jewish people and the world’s first disseminator of monotheism had no tradition about God. His immediate forebears were pagans, as was the culture in which he lived. Avraham operated without any initial revelation. It was necessary for him to engage in a scientifically objective quest to find God.

Interestingly, the written Torah is entirely mute on the subject of how Avraham discovers God. Avraham is mentioned only in the context of his first spiritual assignment, but his entire spiritual saga of discerning God remains shrouded in mystery.

Why is that? Why should Avraham’s intellectual drama be so obscured? Perhaps it is to teach that one’s individual metamorphosis is too personal of a subject to be broadcast publicly. To decipher truth amid decadence and hedonism is a formidable challenge.

The emotional and intellectual rigor, turmoil, and anguish of refining one’s instincts and imperfections is a battle waged in the innermost recesses of one’s heart. Mustering the courage to let go of long-held doctrines and beliefs, and forgoing illicitness one has become ingrained with, is a deeply private exercise. And it is the most important exercise.

In our current chinuch system, we often lose the forest for the trees and get derailed by extolling the didactic, pedagogic, and technical instead of celebrating the work and spirit that goes into shaping an ethical and altruistic conscience.

Our true leaders, like Avraham, never succumbed to the temptation of power. They knew that real power is defined not by one’s clout or material worth but is achieved by perfecting one’s character and living a life of empowering, enabling, and honoring others.

Lord Acton was right – to an extent. Power does tend to corrupt, but only when in the hands of mediocre leaders. Great men fall not because they are innately bad men but because they have not become intrinsically good men.

About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Fingerer is a popular lecturer and educator and the author of "Search Judaism: Judaism's Answers to a Changing World" (Targum, 2009), available at SearchJudaism.com. He is also director of the Think and Care Tank (thinkandcare.org), an organization dedicated to spreading Jewish values and innovative Jewish programming.

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