If we were asked to evaluate a person, what we think of him or her in terms of assessing their character, I think it is safe to say that we would give great weight to actions that speak loudly, are well known and famous, and earth-shatteringly meaningful. Yet this would be an error —a result of the all-too-often truth that humanity is swayed by outer, perhaps subtly superficial, criteria.
A person’s worth is really determined by his inner self and, interestingly, often this is not manifested when great, mighty deeds are performed. For such deeds are many times the results of outside, external forces —sometimes social, sometimes the inspirational aspect of acting in such a manner, sometimes the thought that one is being observed by the public. However, the quiet, private, small actions are what really reflect a person’s true essential being.
On the passuk (Shemos 3:1), “And Moshe was shepherding the flock…” Chazal teach us, “Hashem does not elevate a person to greatness until He tests him out in a small matter. Only then does He elevate him. Look and see how two major leaders of Klal Yisrael who were tested in such a manner, were found faithful, and became leaders of our Nation. G-d tested King David by observing how he, David, took care of his flock, how David would take care to lead the flock to graze far away from individually owned land, favoring the desert instead. This fulfills the words of our Sages (Bava Kamma 79b). Thus, Hashem said, ‘You are faithful with your flock, come shepherd my flock (Bnei Yisrael), as the passuk states in Tehillim (78:71) ‘And He took him from the flocks of sheep [and appointed him King].’ Similarly, Moshe Rabbeinu would steer his flocks away from privately-owned land, and therefore Hashem chose him to shepherd the Jews”
The test of leadership to which Moshe and David were subjected was a test of their methods in tending their flock —surely a ‘small,’ quiet, soft, noiseless matter. A different Midrash portrays other aspects of Moshe’s tending to the flock —how a small kid once broke away from the pack, with Moshe giving chase. The kid reached a stream of water, where it drank thirstily. When Moshe caught up with the small creature, he pityingly took it in his arms and soothingly calmed it down. Said Hakadosh Baruch Hu, “You have exhibited pity towards the sheep of a flesh-and-blood (i.e., Yisro), I will appoint you shepherd over my flock, Klal Yisrael.”
The litmus test of Moshe Rabbeinu’s fitness to lead Bnei Yisrael was not his charisma or other leadership qualities —rather, it was how he cared for and dealt with his flock as a shepherd. There were actually other, ‘greater’ acts that would help define Moshe as a fitting leader. One example is the story of how Moshe went out of the palace to see the oppression of his brethren and killed an Egyptian who was torturing his Jewish slave. There is also the account of how he saved Yisro’s daughters at the well. Yet Moshe was defined as a leader by the smallest, what we would call the most inconsequential, the most private act of all —how he treated his flock of sheep.
A person’s innermost self is defined and developed by his most private moments —far away from what most people would call heroism or fearlessness. The Alter of Kelm made a penetrating insight. Sometimes, he says, a motivating factor even for an act of mesirus nefesh might be the person’s own satisfaction at performing such an act! Moreover, such an act does not necessarily reflect the basic, inherent makeup of what or who the person is. Pitying the flock, away from the crowds, even without an awareness of what one is ‘doing, is just such an act!
Yocheved and Miriam were called Shifrah and Pu’ah respectively. Chazal tell us that this was because of how they treated and soothed crying infants. Now, assuming that a name reflects the inner person (a concept I am sure everyone is familiar with), it is astounding that these should be their ‘names,’ when they exhibited such mesirus nefesh to save the very lives of these Jewish newborns, and went even further by supplying the babies and their mothers with their necessities. Yet it is how their mannerisms in dealing with the crying babies that is considered a truer picture of whom they were!
The Michtav MeiEliyahu cites a most amazing Gemara, which tells how Rabbi Yossi Ben Kisma was very ill, and Rabbi Chanina Ben Teradyon went to visit him. Rabbi Yossi asked Rabbi Chanina, “Certainly you are aware of the power of the Roman Empire (which then ruled over Israel) and that its reign has been decreed from Heaven. How do you defy their decree by gathering groups in public to teach Torah?” Answered Rabbi Chanina, “I do what I have to do…” Rabbi Yossi responded, “But you are courting martyrdom, literally asking to be punished!”
Rabbi Chanina then continued and asked Rabbi Yossi, “Am I a ben olam haba, a person on an olam haba level already in this world?” Rabbi Yossi answered, “Tell me something that once happened to you that would indicate that you indeed are.”
Astounding! Rabbi Chanina has just finished describing the most amazing sort of mesirus nefesh —and Rabbi Yossi is looking for “a ma’aseh?” And Rabbi Chanina tells him one! “I remember that I once mixed up my own funds with some tzedakah money, and I gave the whole thing away to tzedakah (without taking even the minimum amount that was surely his).” Responded Rabbi Yossi, “Would that my share in Gan Eden be as yours will be.”
This is an unbelievable story! Someone who defies the Roman Empire doesn’t yet have a ‘story’ to explain his right to his share in the World-to-Come; yet his looking aside from a relatively small amount of money and not insisting on getting his due reflects a ben olam haba?
This is amazing! Yet it perfectly bespeaks the principle that Chazal teach us about Moshe, about David Hamelech, about Yocheved and Miriam —and about ourselves! What we do away from the limelight, even away from our own limelight, is what we essentially are, pure and untarnished.
Can we look at ourselves with such introspection and awareness? Certainly, we must try.