Shlomo HaMelech begins his description of the woman of valor by declaring that no woman reaches such levels simply by chance or by getting lucky. You can’t just “find” a woman of valor because she isn’t something that just happens. In that sense her value is “far from pearls” which are a matter of luck. Many women have made themselves into women of valor, albeit only through great effort and introspection.
During the last few decades a plethora of “gedolim books” have been written. These books, written with painstaking effort, offer a glimpse into the regal lives of our greatest leaders. But there is one notable fault inherent in these books. Very often they characterize the gadol as being otherworldly, as a person who transcended the challenges and struggles that we encounter every day of our lives. This not only makes the gadol seem “out of reach,” it is also simply untrue.
The Torah does not mince words when it comes to the shortcomings and failings of our greatest leaders. This, despite the fact that the “failings” of Biblical personalities were so subtle and exacting that for the common person those same actions may be even be considered meritorious. The Torah wishes to teach us that every person struggles and at times fails; it’s part of the human experience. What differentiates great people from the masses is that they do not allow themselves to wallow in their mistakes. They dust themselves off and get back in the ring.
HaRav Aharon Feldman eloquently expresses this point. “With a few noteworthy exceptions, these books frequently ignore the self-sacrifice and dedication which of necessity must have gone into the development of every gadol. They often overlook the fact that certainly these men must have had moments of self-doubt, error, and human frailty, and that each had times when he needed encouragement, love, and friendship. Great men are humans just as much as other men; on the contrary, they are great because they faced and overcame the human shortcomings that they had. Because the book focuses its attention on the superficial picture and not on the personal details, these biographies can emerge as unreal and difficult to identify with, thus undermining their educational impact…
“When some forty years ago the Ponovezher Rav, Rabbi Yosef Kaheneman zt”l, decided to found a kollel in Bnei Brak with the express purpose of producing gedolim, his initial idea was to admit only young men blessed with brilliant intellectual faculties. When he presented his plan to the Chazon Ish, the latter expressed his reservations. “Shouldn’t there be a kollel where a future Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan can develop?” he tersely asked. The Chazon Ish was implying that Rabbi Yitzcahk Elchanan Spektor, the fabled Rav of Kovno, author of major halachic works and recognized as the undisputed leader of European Jewry at the turn of the (19th) century, was not a natural genius. By restricting his kollel to gifted minds, the Chazon Ish was saying, the Ponovezher Rav might be denying the next generation of leaders of this caliber.
“True, many gedolim in Jewish history were blessed with prodigious mental gifts, but this was not why they grew to be gedolim. Rabbi Aharon Kotler zt”l, founder of Bais Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, N.J., and a full fledged genius if there ever was one, used to cherish Edison’s adage (which one of his students once cited to him) that ‘genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.’ It was obvious to listeners that he held his own accomplishments to be, not the result of his instantaneous grasp and phenomenal memory, but of his hard work.”
About the Author: Rabbi Dani Staum, LMSW is the Rabbi of Kehillat New Hempstead, as well as Guidance Counselor and fifth grade Rebbe in ASHAR, and Principal at Mesivta Ohr Naftoli of New Windsor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit him on the web at www.stamtorah.info.
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