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Multifaceted Greatness

by Rabbi Berel Wein

The history of the Jewish nation is studded with the lives of extraordinary people. These people were so great and multifaceted that their influence has lasted over centuries. And, it is not only their influence, as recorded in great books or immense scholarship that is so noteworthy, it is the influence of their very personalities that remains so vital and alive centuries after their deaths. There are many examples that I could use to illustrate this point but in this article I will confine my remarks to discussing perhaps the two most outstanding personages in Jewish thought after the Talmudic period - Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) and Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam). These two men invested Israel not only with knowledge and clarity about its holy texts and its faith and beliefs, but the dint of their different personalities permeates Jewish life even today. Human greatness is hard to imitate and hard to truly quantify and describe. Great people have many different parts to them and oftentimes one can only glimpse one or two of those parts and thus a complete picture of the person is rarely present, It takes almost equal greatness to define the greatness of others. We are therefore similar to the three blind people in the parable of the elephant where each one describes the part of the elephant that he is touching - leg, snout, tusk - but none can describe the elephant itself. In spite of this caveat, I will attempt to give some insight into the lives of Rashi and Rambam.

Rashi (1040-1105) may truly be seen as the father of Ashkenazic Jewry. Living at a time when there were probably only five to ten thousand Ashkenazic Jews in the world, his family ties and his yeshiva reached almost every Ashkenazic family in France and Germany. Almost eighty percent of Ashkenazic Jewry today claim some familial or student connection to him! He is the master teacher of Israel. In spite of the demands on his time - he was a vintner, father, husband, teacher, rabbinic judge and the rabbi of Troyes, France - he wrote the commentary to the Bible and to the Talmud. It is no exaggeration to say that the Talmud would have remained a sealed book, understandable only to a few scholars, had it not been for Rashi's commentary. My teachers in the yeshiva compared Rashi to a mother holding the hand of her child and crossing a busy street with the child in safety against heavy traffic. I have always felt that to be a most apt metaphor.

Rashi's commentary to the Bible is the standard used in the Jewish world even today, almost a millennium after it was written. It combines an understanding of Hebrew grammar, Jewish traditions, Talmudic legends, philosophical and psychological insights and shrewd moral observations that allow the words on the biblical page to take on life and meaning. And Rashi's serene personality shines through his works. He is never argumentative, never criticizes others, is always gentle and expresses his brilliance in a manner so unassuming and natural that one initially hardly recognizes the greatness of his work. He is kind and optimistic and never exhibits the strains of his times and circumstances - after all, he lived during the First Crusade that devastated much of French and German Jewry. Much of the warmth, comradeship and humor that characterized Ashkenazic Jewry in Eastern Europe is directly traceable to the presence of Rashi's influence and personality.

Rambam (1135-1204) is cut from a different cloth. He lived a turbulent life, escaping from the wrath of the fanatical Almohads, waging a theological and practical battle against the Karaites and suffering much personal tragedy in his lifetime. He was publicly critical of others' opinions and behavior and took strong stands on controversial issues. He was a physician and a philosopher and he was a person of prodigious talents. He knew sciences and pharmacology, languages and psychology. But above all else he was the foremost Torah scholar of his time and of many times. It is no exaggeration again to note that the Jewish people said and say of him: "From Moshe till Moshe there arose none like Moshe." He wrote three major works on Judaism - The Explanation of the Mishna; The Mishna Torah (which codified all of Judaism's laws and practices) and The Guide to the Perplexed (probably the most famous book of Jewish philosophy). He was a person subjected to controversy but the greatness of his character and the nobility of his spirit made his critics eventually recede and he has been vindicated many times over by the generations of Jews who bask in his knowledge and follow his direction. He took risks to save Jews from a hostile Moslem world of forced conversions and became the leading figure in the Jewish world of his time. In his wisdom he stated that all controversies regarding him and his works would abate over time and that the worth of his works would stand the test of time on their own merits. He was certainly correct in that assessment and there is not a Jewish school anywhere in today's world that does not study Rambam in one fashion or another. His towering personality encompassed all talents and greatness and he remains the "great eagle" of Jewish thought and Torah knowledge. The survival of Israel is due in no small measure to these two men - Rashi and Rambam.

reprinted with permission from rabbiwein.com

 


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