Photo Credit: Asher Schwartz

What really makes a great Torah leader? What is the trait that catapults a great tzaddik and talmid chacham to a gadol? When thinking of great political leaders, (Washington, Churchill, Meir and Begin come to mind), we tend to view them as tough, smart men and women with a whole lot of fortitude who put their lives on the line for their countries.

Yet the prerequisite for becoming a Rav Moshe, a Rav Chaim, a Satmar Rebbe, a Lubavitcher Rebbe, zichronom livracha, appears to be a little more complicated. Obviously a complete and exhaustive knowledge of Torah, halacha, Gemara, Chumash and everything in between is a must. But in truth, there are so many Torah giants that I have met, or heard about in my lifetime, who know practically every single line of every single sefer written – and while considered great people, they are relatively unknown.


And so I wondered what trait elevates a holy, learned scholar into a different stratosphere. Moshe Rabbeinu, the leader par excellence, is the paradigm for great leadership. Interestingly, for a man of such great stature, it seems strange that only 13 pesukim are related about him from the time he is born until the moment he happens upon G-d at the Burning Bush. The Torah gives us very little detail about Moshe’s life up until the moment he kills the Egyptian, yet the Torah spends hundreds of pesukim discussing many laws and sacrifices that no longer apply to us, and even lists the lineages of people we can’t possibly know – let alone pronounce! Why would the Torah give the single greatest leader’s life such little backstory?

Since Hashem never makes a mistake, it must mean that everything we need to know about the greatness of Moshe can be found in those 13 pesukim. And indeed it is. We see that Moshe first leaves his palace of comfort in order to be among his brethren, saves a Jew from being beaten, protects Yitro’’s daughters at the well, and finally tends some sheep, until he finally meets Hashem. What is the one word that can be used to describe a man who leaves the comfort of his own palace, becoming a fugitive along the way, and then tends to the needs of others? Sensitivity.

The army is always “looking for a good few men,” yet Hashem was only looking for one. This man had to exhibit the trait of caring about others, whether it be by protecting an Israelite, a helpless women at a well, or simply tending a flock. Moshe Rabbeinu was that man. Whether they complained about a lack of meat or water, or worshipped a golden calf, that didn’t stop Moshe from caring about Klal Yisroel, even requesting his name be erased from the Torah were Hashem not to forgive His people. And while we can’t all be Moshe Rabbeinu, each and every one of us can make a difference, and as I’ve found, sometimes it’s usually the small things that make all the difference.

I once heard that many years ago a very secular man who lived in a foreign country with few Jews was once quoted as saying he “would never marry out of the faith.” When asked why, he explained that in his youth while traveling on business in Poland, he fell asleep in a shul. All he remembers was a “holy rabbi” covering him with a blanket as he slept. At that moment, he decided that he would never marry someone who wasn’t Jewish. That “holy rabbi” was none other than the saintly Chofetz Chaim, z”l. Sure, he was busy with many responsibilities, but that didn’t stop him from comforting a fellow Jew.

The leap to greatness is attainable, but it all starts with being sensitive.

Several years ago, the great gadol hador, the Steipler Gaon, was in shul davening on Yom Kippur when he noticed a young boy with what appeared to be a large sefer. The Rav mentioned that he should be davening from a siddur, not learning. The child explained it was indeed a siddur, though larger than usual. The Steipler apologized for falsely accusing and possibly embarrassing the boy and they both continued their davening.

A few years passed and one day the boy was celebrating his bar mitzvah when suddenly, who should walk in but the revered Steipler Gaon. He immediately approached the bar mitzvah boy and reminded him of the incident that had happened years before. He explained to the boy that while he previously forgave him, the halacha required him to get mechilah, forgiveness, from the child the moment he became a bar mitzvah.

I’m not sure about you, but I don’t know too many people who would exhibit that type of sensitivity toward another person, let alone a child. But that sensitivity is the necessary component for attaining greatness. Just reading any story about Aryeh Levin, z”l, shows a man who was so in tune to the feelings of his fellow brothers, even Jewish inmates, that it was palpable. I once read a story about a car door that was accidentally slammed on Rav Moshe Feinstein’s hand. If that had happened to me, G-d forbid, I would probably have screamed bloody murder. Yet Rav Moshe Feinsntein, z”l, remained quiet for the duration of the ride to avoid hurting the feelings of the person who did it. What an amazing level of sensitivity for another to attain.

Many times, we think that the road to greatness requires years of learning, and while that’s true, it must be coupled with sensitizing oneself to another’s pain. Remember that the Torah informs us that Moshe Rabbeinu left the palace “to see the plight of his brethren.”

Now if I were a prince of Egypt, living in the lap of luxury, surrounded by servants meeting my every need, eating the finest Egyptian cuisine, and having a great insurance plan, why would I give that all up just to save another person (and an Israelite no less)? Because that’s what separates Moshe Rabbeinu – and other great gedolim – from the rest of us. Whether it’s a fellow Jew being beaten by an Egyptian, a fellow Jew who is sleeping in a shul, a Jewish inmate who is alone, or even a little boy whose feelings are hurt, each and every one of us has the opportunity to effect great change, while growing one step closer to greatness.


Previous articleYes, it’s Ungrateful to Turn Your Back on the National Anthem
Next articleRooted or Rootless – Pull Up a Chair [audio]
Avi Ciment lectures throughout the world and has just finished his second book, Real Questions Real Answers, and can be reached at