The True Test of Greatness
Shemot, 6:26-27 "This was Aaron and Moses to whom God said: 'Take the Children of Israel out of Egypt according to their legions. They were the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, King of Egypt, to take the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; this was Moses and Aaron."
Rashi, Shemot, 6:27 sv. This was Moses and Aaron: "They were steadfast in their mission and in their righteousness from the beginning until the end."
Rashi quotes a Gemara in Megilla that enumerates verses demonstrating the consistency of great people. Only one other person is mentioned in a similar vein as being steadfast in his righteousness from the beginning until the end - Abraham.(1) Why are these the only people about whom the Torah gives this particular form of praise?
It seems that these three people were more than anyone else, placed in situations that were so challenging that anyone not on the highest level would have succumbed to the difficulties and not maintained their incredibly high standards of conduct. Abraham, already at the age of three years old reached greatness in recognizing God - from that time on he faced incredible pressure to reject his newfound beliefs in favor of the predominant idolatry. Yet he remained steadfast, willing to give up his own life in the furnace in Ohr Kasdim. God continued to test him in areas that conflicted with his incredible sense of kindness, such as expelling his own son Ishmael, and of course the Akeida (Binding of Isaac) where he was instructed to kill his beloved son, Isaac. In all these tests he could have faltered slightly, wondering why God was telling him to perform a deed that contradicted the beliefs that he had sacrificed so much to uphold.(2) Yet he stood firm, maintaining the incredible levels that he reached as a child.
Moses and Aaron, in their more than forty year long role as saviors of the Jewish people, also faced many challenges and tests that could easily have caused them to falter, beginning with their initial failed attempt to improve the lot of the Jews in their slavery. It continued with the numerous instances where the Jewish people turned against them, accusing them of bringing them to die in the desert, and even coming close to killing them on occasion.(3) Moreover they endured extreme tragedies in the various episodes of the Exodus such as the consequences of the sin of the spies. Yet at no time did they weaken in their determination to fulfill the role that God had forced upon them at the very beginning. Thus, the Sages tell us that they remained as righteous at the end of the long and difficult saga of the Exodus as they were in the beginning.
Of course we cannot aspire to the level of steadfastness that Abraham, Moses and Aaron attained in maintaining their spiritual level in the midst of all their challenges, however, their example teaches us a vital lesson. It is praiseworthy for a person to act with good character traits and Faith in God when his situation is stable, but the true test of his righteousness is when he is placed in difficult situations - is he then able to keep to his values or does his yetser hara take over. Two examples serve to illustrate this point:
The Chazon Ish in his work on Bitachon (trust of God), suggests a case of Reuben who is constantly expressing his Emuna and how everything that he has is from God; he proclaims his recognition that his livelihood emanates purely from God and that there is no need for anxiety. However, when Simon opens a business that rivals that of Reuben, suddenly, all his Emuna fades away and he worries constantly over the future, he even begins to complain about his new rival, and perhaps plots unethical ways to cause Shimon to close down. Reuben's Emuna seemed to be strong when everything was going smoothly, but when he was put to the test, he failed to show sufficient Bitachon.(4)
A second example is offered by the saying of the Sages that the true measure of person is known by how he acts with regard to money, how he behaves when he is inebriated, and - most pertinent here - to how he acts on occasions that arouse anger.(5) The fact that he acts calmly most of the time does not indicate that he is a true baal middot.(6) His true level is only revealed when he can maintain his composure at times where he is put under great pressure.
We have seen from the examples of Abraham, Moses and Aaron how true greatness is measured by one's behavior in difficult times - may we all aspire to emulate them on our own level.
1. Megilla, 11a. The Gemara also lists a number of reshaim who were 'consistent' in their evil; Esav, Dassan and Aviram, Achashverosh and Achaz.
2. Indeed Chazal tell us that the Satan made several attempts to persuade him not to go through with the Akeida.
3. As was the case with Aharon at the sin of the Golden Calf
4. See Emuna and Bitachon of the Chazon Ish, Ch. 2, Part 2.
5. Eruvin, 65b.
6. The term for someone who has sterling character traits.