There is an interesting account written by Clearchus, a student of Aristotle, telling of when Aristotle was confronted by a Jewish sage. The sage (unnamed) had come to test Aristotle’s renowned knowledge and insights. However, according to Clearchus, Aristotle was the one who left impressed by the sage’s knowledge and insights.
When we hear the names, “Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates,” we feel admiration and wonder at those great wise men. When we hear the names, “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” it doesn’t seem to have the same effect. Perhaps that’s because we don’t realize what they have contributed.
So, for this Chanukah, in honor of the eight nights of light, here are eight great leaders of the Jewish people with one contribution each (though they have given plenty more) to the world as we know it. And as the “Relationships Rabbi,” I’m going to take a view on these contributions from a relationships perspective.
As a young man of only 17 years, Joseph was abandoned by his brethren and painfully sold to slavery. He found himself emotionally and physically destitute, eventually sold to a wealthy Egyptian man, Potiphar. Potiphar’s beautiful wife takes a liking to Joseph and consistently attempts to seduce him. He was alone, forsaken by his family, in a foreign country, living as a slave. He had every excuse in the book to give up on his integrity. And yet he refused. This commitment to morality, especially marital morality, has been, and unfortunately still is, a lesson for civilization to continue to learn from.
Known throughout Jewish literature as, “The Seeker of Peace,” Aaron was a very holy man. One of his first “cameos” in the Bible is when he heard his younger brother, Moses, was going to become the leader of the nation. Their father, Amram, had also been the leader of the nation. It would make the most sense that Aaron, a man of great scholarship and wisdom who is also the oldest in the family, would follow in that role. However, his brother was Divinely declared as the leader. What was his reaction? Indignation? Remorse? Frustration? It is beautifully and succinctly stated, “His heart rejoiced.” The joy for others and their accomplishments to trump our expectations for ourselves is a profound lesson in relationships.
As a stranger came to town with his long entourage of servants and camels, he went to the well to fill up on water after a long journey. Not knowing who he was or what he was there for, Rebecca offered him, his servants and his camels water. (And camels drink a lot of water!) The great lesson of honoring and taking care of others is beautifully exemplified by our matriarch.
4. King David
Arguably the greatest leader of all times, King David was a powerhouse — a genius beyond comprehension and mastermind at war, poetry, scholarship and governing. Yet he was never apprehensive to admit to making a mistake. We learn the essence of admitting to our mistakes, learning from them and repenting to change for the future from our great beloved leader, King David.
As the receptor of the Divine word to be brought to the entire nation of the Jewish people and eventually to the world, there doesn’t seem to be a more honorable and esteemed position ever to exist. And yet the Bible’s one description of Moses’ character is simply, “the most humble of all men.” His recognition of the greatness of every human being and their Divine soul was why he was charged with the great task of bearing the Divine word to the world. And his great accomplishment of character development is perhaps one of the greatest lessons that he taught us.
After meeting the love of her life, her sister was snuck under the chuppahinstead. Did she cry out? Did she tell her beloved fiancé that she will seemingly never be able to bond with him? No. Out of deep empathy to her sister’s shame, she did not speak up. To reach such a profound level of empathy even in the midst of our own emotional pain is something we dream of. Our matriarch embodied it, lived it and taught it to us.
He assumed leadership of the Jewish people after Moses. What were his great qualifications? We know he was close to Moses and learned from him regularly. We also know he was Divinely declared for the position. However, what is interesting to note, is the description of his merit to this position. Jewish literature relates that he would clean up after everyone in the study halls. He made sure everything was taken care of behind the scenes. No one was watching. He saw the need for the community to have this taken care of, and so he took it upon himself to do that. He exemplifies the concept of looking at the community and seeking what needs to get done, with no self-aggrandizement or gratification taken into account.
And for the final relationship insight, we’ll talk about the Maccabees. Imagine a world without marital allegiance, empathy, altruistic communal concerns, a willingness and desire to amend mistakes, kindness to strangers … The Maccabees knew the great wisdom of those listed above and much more was at stake when the Greeks attempted to Hellenize the Jewish people. They recognized that there is wisdom and meaning beyond what is scientifically quantifiable. Their victory proved it, as a few farmers defeated the world’s greatest army. They were willing to fight and die for the sake of a spiritual existence that goes beyond the physical reality.
Jewish people, stand proud! You have contributed and continue to tribute great light unto the world! Happy Chanukah!