Greatness and Smallness in Man

Greatness and Smallness in Man

BackBack to Main Page

By: Rav Avraham Rivlin

(Sicha given 17 Tammuz 5762)

First, I would like to wish you all a happy holiday. No, I am not referring to Chazal's statement that the fasts will ultimately turn into holidays, but rather, it says explicitly in the Torah, "Chag lashem machar" (Shemot 32:5). 17 Tammuz was destined to be day that Moshe returned from Mt. Sinai with the Tablets after forty days -- it was intended to be a great day. (Everything great coming down from heaven to this world requires forty days of preparation -- the Torah, the formation of human life in an embryo). Yom Kippur, for us the holiest day of the year, is merely a substitute for 17 Tammuz. Yet, the sin of the golden calf, which occurred on this day, and the downfall that it caused, was the greatest sin that occurred in the desert. There were many sins, including serious ones, such as the sin of the spies, but in all of them G-d punished the people and closed the issue. The sin of the golden calf, however, continues on: "There is no punishment of Israel that does not contain in it a little payback from the sin of the calf." (Rashi Shemot 32:4) Therefore, midat hadin (the Divine attribute of justice) prevails during these days. [In the halachic literature we find ramifications of this; e.g., a teacher should not hit his pupil during these days, and a person should not go out alone at night since ketev meriri is prowling.]

Had Bnei Yisrael not sinned, there would be no idolatry and no death. The sin of etz hada'at brought death to world. Had Adam waited till Shabbat eve, he would have entered straight into Gan Eden. At Mt. Sinai, Bnei Yisrael returned to the level of Adam prior to the sin, but at the sin of the golden calf, the zuhama (taint) returned, and mankind fell greatly. This is the lesson of this day: Man can be the greatest of creatures, but can fall to be the lowest. This day illustrates the extremes of man.

It is impossible to describe the level of Adam before the sin. He was much greater than the angels. They would serve him and roast meat for him, and wanted to sing before him. Rav Kook, in a correspondence addressing evolution (vol. I, 193), writes that the exact manner of creation does not make such a difference. The basic message of story of creation is that despite man's greatness, if he sins -- he will lose everything. On the one hand, we read in Tehillim (8:5-7):

What is man that You should remember him, and the son of mortal man that You should be mindful of him? Yet, you have made him but slightly less than G-d, and crowned him with soul and splendor. You give him dominion over Your handiwork, You placed everything under his feet.

Man is the crown of creation. He is created in the image of G-d; there is something of the Divine in man. Yet, on the other hand, we read (144:4):

Man is like a [mere] breath; his days are like a passing shadow.

In the name "Adam" these two extremes are expressed. One the one hand, "Adam" indicates adameh la'elyon (I will mimic the Divine), hadom leraglav (footstool of G-d); the bottom of the Divine hishtalshelut is man. One the other hand, "Adam" is the acronym for efer, dam, mara (ashes, blood, and bile). Rashi explains that this indicates that man's corporal being is comprised entirely of nothingness. The Gemara states that man is like angels in three respects and like animals in three others. Man vacillates between angels and animals. "Uredu" -- to rule, and to descend. If man merits (zachah) he will rule over the animals, if not, he will descend below them. Rav Dessler zt"l explains that zachah is not an issue of luck, but rather of zaccut -- self-purification. If man purifies himself -- he is just short of G-d, as the pasuk says. But if lo zachah, man does not purify himself -- he is less than the animals.

So, too, Am Yisrael; they are either like the stars or like the dirt. The Gemara (Ketuvot 66b) relates that R. Yochanan b. Zakkai found the daughter of Nakdimon b. Gurion (one of the wealthiest aristocrats of Yerushalayim), picking out grains of barley from the waste of the Arabs' camel. He cried and said, "Fortunate are you Israel! When they do G-d's will, no nation can rule over them. When they do not do G-d's will, He delivers them into the hands ... of the animals of a lowly nation." This response seems inappropriate. True, there were great periods for Am Yisrael, but now -- they were at a low. About this state he says, "Fortunate are you Israel?!" The Maharal says, "Yes!" R. Yochanan indeed cried over the tragic current situation, but the depths of the fall show the great potential that Israel can reach.

Thus, 17 Tammuz has great potential, so much that Yom Kippur serves as its substitute, but on the other hand -- it is the day of Israel's greatest fall.

The chiddush, though, is that at the very same time a person can be the greatest -- adameh la'elyon -- or very small. The Midrash asks, how could Bnei Yisrael drop to sin so quickly, only forty days after the Revelation at Mt. Sinai? On the pasuk, "They have strayed quickly" (Shemot 32:8), the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 42:7) cites various opinions as to when Bnei Yisrael begin to contemplate making the golden calf. The opinions range from twenty-nine days after the Revelation, down to eleven days, two days, one day, and concludes, "R. Meir says, it was not even one day. Rather, they were standing at Mt. Sinai and said with their mouths, 'na'aseh venishma,' while their hearts were intending for idolatry, as it says, 'They sought to beguile Him with their mouth.'" (Tehillim 78:36) The Gemara in Shabbat (88b) similarly comments, "A disgraceful bride, who commits adultery in her chupah." They stand at Mt Sinai and already there they are thinking about idolatry. We have to explain that they were not consciously planning to make the calf, but the fact that shortly later they could make it, indicates that subconsciously they were thinking of it. (Similarly, some explain that Sarah only laughed inwardly, which reflected a shadow of doubt, and was not lying outright when she said, "I did not laugh.") Man himself doesn't know the power of real commitment and resolution. It lasts for a while, and than dissipates, which shows that the commitment was not sufficient.

The manner of the yetzer hara is to tell a person today, "Do this," and the next day, "Do that," until he pushes him to idolatry. There usually is not a sharp crossover. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt"l explains, though, that sometimes, "saru maher" ("They have strayed quickly") -- it manages to confuse a person and push him straight down from the pinnacle of Mt. Sinai to the abyss of the golden calf.

We would like to bring number of examples from Tanach illustrating the phenomenon of great and small simultaneously.

* Kayin is generally viewed as a wicked person who murdered his brother. However, he was also a great person. G-d spoke with him. Moreover, he was the one who "invented" the idea of a sacrifice, and Hevel copied from him. Kayin was first! Why, then, did G-d not turn to him? One answer is that already at the same time that he offered, Kayin had the nature of a murderer, as became evident later.

* In the famous judgment of King Shlomo, one of the two women wanted to steal her colleague's child. For what? A person has an innate need to give, to bestow chesed. Bearing and raising children is hard, but a barren person is like dead since there is this inner need to give. Here, the woman desperately wants a child in order to do chesed, and now is willing to have him murdered!

* Eliphaz runs after Yaakov. He is the son of Esav and the father of Amalek. He chases after Yaakov to kill him in order to fulfill his father's command. Yet, since he grew up in the household of Yitzchak, he consented to compromise and take all of Yaakov's wealth, instead. Although he is a murderer and willing to kill, yet the fact that he grew up on the lap of Yitzchak instilled in him a certain amount of righteousness.

* Yitro worshipped all the idolatry in the world. He stipulated with Moshe's that his first son would be a priest to idolatry. Yet, Yitro is the symbol of the ideal non-Jew. Moshe had great gratitude, and would not leave him without saying goodbye.

* Yaakov was afraid when he saw Esav. Why? G-d promised that He would be with him. Chazal explain that Yaakov was afraid "shema yigrom hacheit" (lest sin cause). However, this concern is sufficient for the average person, who might fall from mediocrity to wickedness. However, why should Yaakov be afraid? (The Netziv explains that, indeed, Yaakov was upset because he became afraid). The real answer is that when it says that G-d doesn't retract, this means when it is said as a prophecy, not a promise (Rambam). However, we can give another answer based on the following example. If a seller mistakenly quotes a price of "fifty," and then sees that the correct price is seventy, how much should he charge? To what extent does a person have to uphold his word if it was mistaken? Of course, this depends on the person. Perhaps a common approach would be that if the base cost is more than the quoted price, and would cause the seller a loss, he would ask for more, but if it would not cause him a loss, just provide less profit -- in order to maintain his credibility he would uphold his original quote. In a similar manner, we can explain that G-d's promise was given to a righteous person. Now, so long as the person maintains a reasonable commitment, even if not on the same lofty level, G-d does not retract His promise. But if the person is now wicked -- He will not necessarily stand on His word. Thus, apparently Yaakov was afraid that not only would he fall to a mediocre level, but rather to a low level, to a level that even a prophecy for good would be revoked.

This is what 17 Tammuz teaches, that at the very same moment a person can be great, but fall to the lowest depths -- "saru maher."

What is the danger of this simultaneous greatness and smallness? If a person were truly great --- good. On the other hand, if a person is small, but knows this, it also wouldn't be so bad -- there is hope for change. It says that the metzora has to call out "tameh." Why? The simple reason is to warn others. Some explain, though, to be self-cognizant of his condition. He has to constantly remind himself that he is impure, and needs to improve, lest he think that he is righteous.

This is problem. "If we are truly good" is not just a theoretical possibility. It is actually so, and it covers our smallness. It masks our links to blood and flesh, and we associate ourselves with man's aspect of, "You have made him but slightly less than G-d." The Torah prohibits the pig, "for its hoof it split ... but it does not chew its cud." Note that it does not say that the pig is not kosher, "for it does not chew its cud, even though its hoof is split," but precisely because it does have a split hoof, and yet does not chew its cud -- it thinks that it is righteous.

Had Bnei Yisrael realized at matan Torah that they were about to sin with the calf, it would have been better for them. In the current state that man's greatness conceals his smallness, the lofty proclamation of "na'aseh venishma," with all the accompanying accolades is bad, because it masks the potential danger of fall. If you think you are at pinnacle and you are really at the bottom -- there is no chance. I once heard a homiletical explanation of the pasuk, "Beware of ascending the mountain and touching its edge" (Shemot 19:12) -- Beware lest you think that you are at the top of the mountain when you are at the bottom of hill. At least know that you are at the bottom.

Why, then, did G-d give such great potential? To give hope, so that we would not despair. The conclusion is that we have to be aware that we are on the bottom, but to know that we can climb. We were there once before. Only in this way we will always strive to move forward. If we didn't have the adameh la'elyon, the angelic qualities; if we didn't have the 17 Tammuz which is "a holiday for G-d" -- we would stay in the mud of the bottom of the mountain, and we would have no dream nor the desire to move forward. But if we know that we have potential, despite the fact that we are not there yet -- we will be motivated to move forward, to ascend.

And if we want to -- maybe we will finally get there!

Shiur ID: 3988

Scan to load the shiur on the KBY website:



Do you have a comment or question on the shiur?
Comment below and we'll join the discussion

Add your comments: