Alfred seemed like a normal teenager -- shy, reclusive, with a love for English poetry. This typical behavior came to a standstill when he started experimenting with something much more intimidating than a reserved personality -- explosives. Alfred maintained that his goal of tampering with these dangerous materials would help contribute to society, defending our country and protecting ourselves from brutal enemies. But he accidentally killed his brother and four other men while conducting tests with nitroglycerin.
When Alfred died a rich man in 1896, he left millions of dollars to reward selected people who had made a unique contribution to society. Special awards were given in the areas of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and, as history would later dictate, economics. Alfred Nobel was the creator of the Nobel Prize. He recognized the importance of an individual's contribution to society. Judaism also recognizes the individual contributions of its people -- but the reward is much greater.
In the Torah, God instructs Moshe that a prince from each of the 12 tribes should bring an offering on behalf of their people (Numbers, 7:11). The Torah goes on to describe, in detail, each sacrifice that the princes brought. The puzzling part of this description is that each tribe brought the exact same sacrifice. Why would God spend so much time documenting the exact verses twelve times in a row?
Rabbi Yitzchak Meir of Gur explains that the purpose of such repetition is to teach the Jewish people the preciousness of each and every one of their contributions. Each tribe had a different intention and spiritual uniqueness to their offering, and therefore the Torah wanted to inform us for all time that Judaism recognizes the positive contributions of every person with his unique and special talent.
Imagine how you would feel if the President of the United States came to visit your home. It would be just you and him, spending a couple of hours shmoozing over a cup of coffee. Would you feel honored? Distinguished? Unique? In fact, such an event took place thousands of years ago.
In the very beginning of the Book of Numbers, Moshe took a census of the Jewish people, counting each family and person individually. The Ramban (Nachmanides) asks why Moshe felt it was necessary to do the census himself. Certainly the greatest leader of the Jewish People had more important issues to attend to than counting an entire nation. Why didn't he leave the "bean counting" to accountants?
Nachmanides explains that nothing was more important to Moshe than imbuing a sense of uniqueness and self-worth to each member of the Jewish People. He was the greatest leader -- the "President" if you will -- of the Jewish Nation, and for him to count and visit with each Jew gave them special pride and self-esteem.
Being a special and integral member of the Jewish people is a wonderful privilege. Along with this privilege comes an even greater responsibility. By knowing that we each have a special and distinctive gift, we must be careful not to limit ourselves or our untapped potential.
I recently read the bestseller Good to Great by Jim Collins. The book analyzes public companies that made a transition from being a modest "good" company to an incredible "great" corporation, climbing above the competitors for a substantial number of years. At the very beginning of his book, the author theorizes that "good" is the enemy of "great." When a company -- or person -- is satisfied with being mediocre and simply "good," they will never achieve a higher level of "great."
We live in a society where people are just "trying to get by." People do the least amount possible, getting away with whatever they can. It's human nature to be lazy and quite natural to be satisfied with mediocrity. But once you enter Judaism's portal of being recognized for your uniqueness and contributions, the bar is raised.
Once we realize the awesome responsibility placed on us, we must be careful not to limit our potential by being satisfied with mediocrity. There should be a natural expectation to achieve greatness in our pursuit of spirituality, relationships, or any other worthy endeavor. When we strive for greatness in everything we do, God will be sure to award us with a truly "noble" prize.