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Vaera: Defining Greatness

Rashi, in his commentary to Parashat Vaera (6:26), observes that the Torah is not consistent in the way it mentions Moshe and Aharon. On some occasions, it mentions Moshe before Aharon, whereas on other occasions it mentions Aharon first. This was done, Rashi explains, to teach us that the two brothers were equal in stature. Lest we think that one was greater than the other, the Torah mentions one first in some contexts and the other first in some contexts, indicating that they were equal.

Rav Moshe Feinstein (Russia-New York, 1895-1986) raises the question of how Rashi can claim that Moshe and Aharon were equal. Although Aharon was undoubtedly very righteous, Moshe was the greatest prophet that ever lived, and the Rambam describes Moshe as the most complete human being that ever walked the Earth. Can we really say that Aharon’s stature was equal to Moshe’s?

Rav Feinstein answered that greatness is determined not in absolute terms, but rather in terms of one’s achieving all that he was meant to achieve. If we judge the accomplishments of Moshe and Aharon by objective standards, then, indeed, Moshe’s accomplishments exceeded those of Aharon. But this is not the way we should be assessing greatness. G-d gives all of us our individual strengths, weaknesses, talents, capabilities, struggles and challenges, and our level of greatness is determined by the extent to which we achieved what was expected of us given our abilities and circumstances. A simple example would be two students in a classroom, one of whom has a brilliant, razor-sharp mind and a photographic memory, while the other has below average scholastic abilities. They are both diligent students and work hard in school, and so the first always earns the highest grades and the second consistently receives average scores. Who is greater? In objective terms, the first is greater, but in truth, they are both equal. Since they both maximize their potential and achieve to the best of their respective abilities, we cannot say that either is greater than the other.

It is in this sense that Rashi describes Moshe and Aharon as "equal." Each maximized his potential to its very fullest, and each became the greatest Sadik he could. And thus they were equally great.

The Gemara tells the story of a certain Rabbi who fell deathly ill, and his soul momentarily departed before he recovered. When he was revived, he reported what he saw in the next world. He said that those who in this world were "high" were "low" in the next world, while those who were "low" in this world were "high" in the next world. Rav Feinstein explained that in the next word, greatness is assessed the way it should be – based on people’s individual potential, as opposed to this world, where people evaluate greatness based on concrete accomplishments. And so people who are held in high esteem in this world will not necessarily be noted for their greatness in the next world, as it is quite possible that they failed to achieve to their full potential. Conversely, it is possible that people whose achievements went unnoticed in this world will be held in high esteem in the next world, as they achieved the most they could, given their limited capabilities.

This is an especially important lesson for parents. Our children should not be compared to their peers or classmates; they should be compared to themselves, to the child that they are capable of being. This means that we should not feel content if a gifted student accomplishes more than his peers, and we should not push an average student to compete with advanced students. Our focus must be on encouraging and helping each child achieve all he is able to achieve, to use his G-d-given talents to the best of his ability, and grow to become the person that G-d created him to be.

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