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by Rabbi Yaakov Menken

"And the man Moshe was extremely humble, before every person on the face of the earth." [12:3]

The Chofetz Chaim asks, how is this possible? Moshe, the leader of the Jewish people, brought them out of Egypt, split the sea before their eyes, and ascended Mt. Sinai to speak "face-to-face" with G-d. How could he possibly consider himself smaller than everyone else?

The answer is: true greatness is measured not in the eyes of other people, but in the eyes of G-d. We cannot judge people by absolute standards of measure. Can we expect an unintelligent person to become a brilliant scholar? Can we expect a simple Jew to be as pure in his actions as a great Rabbi's son? It happens all the time, but the achievement is that much greater when we realize the starting point. It's not "where we are" so much as "where we started from."

A person is obligated to perform based on his or her personal understanding, or capacity to understand. Precisely because Moshe had ascended to Heaven, he believed that he was not fulfilling his obligations. He could not judge himself against the people "on the face of the earth," for he alone had been with angels, and was therefore required to be that much more like an angel than an ordinary man.

This thought becomes that much more compelling when we realize how thoroughly the Chofetz Chaim integrated this into his own life. There is a popular story, recorded by his student Rabbi Shmuel Greineman in "The Chofetz Chaim on the Torah:"

An older Rabbi from Radin - the Chofetz Chaim's town - was on a train, sitting near another Jew. The second person, striking up a conversation, asked the Rabbi where he came from, and when the Rabbi responded, the second Jew came over to learn about the Chofetz Chaim himself. "They say about the Chofetz Chaim who lives in your town, that he is a completely righteous man!"

"Surely you're joking!" replied the Rabbi. "I know him well - he's an ordinary Jew, just like all the Jews of Radin."

The second man was very offended. Everyone knew that the Chofetz Chaim was the righteous man of the generation, and here was a Rabbi - from the same town, no less! - who dared to put him down! But the Rabbi insisted that he knew the Chofetz Chaim quite well, and he was no righteous man, just an ordinary Jew. The second man became more and more furious, and sharply criticized this Rabbi for failing to give credit where credit was due.

Before too long, the train arrived in a town, and more Jewish passengers came aboard. Some immediately recognized that the old Rabbi was none other than the Chofetz Chaim himself, and came to ask for his blessing.

Obviously the second man was extremely embarrassed, and immediately begged the forgiveness of the Chofetz Chaim for insulting him. But the Chofetz Chaim pushed him off, saying "why do you need my forgiveness? Did you sin? You thought incorrectly that I was a righteous person, but since you didn't know better, that's hardly a crime. Now that you realize that I'm really not a righteous or holy man, why do you need my forgiveness?"

How much better would our world be, if we could only follow the footsteps of the Chofetz Chaim?

Text Copyright © 1996 Rabbi Yaakov Menken and Project Genesis, Inc.

The author is the Director of Project Genesis.



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