Michael Knopf
Rabbi and editor of 'No Time for Neutrality'

From great to good

How trying to accomplish greatness obstructs the Jewish and moral ideal of being a truly good person

In the 19th century, British philosopher Thomas Carlyle argued that history is mainly about the accomplishments of great people. Since then, many thinkers have pointed out the flaws in Carlyle’s “Great Men” theory, but, whether intentionally or not, history is often still taught this way. We teach our kids about the past largely through the stories of great people doing big, important things.

The stories we tell convey values, whether we mean them to or not. And the message of this approach to history is that our significance depends on the preeminence of our accomplishments. I know I grew up internalizing this message. It was reinforced by parents and teachers who, in ways subtle and overt, taught me that my worth was commensurate with my achievements, that if I wanted to live a life of meaning and value, I had to be great by doing great things.

What is striking to me is how significantly this view differs from that of the Jewish tradition. If one were to make a list of the major figures of the Bible, what would be striking is that they were called by God to take on significant roles not because they had remarkable accomplishments or were uniquely gifted, but, rather, because they were good. And even as they ascend to roles of significance in the unfolding story of the Jewish people, the Torah focuses not on their accomplishments, but on their character.

Take Noah, for example. Why did God choose Noah to survive the Flood?

Here’s what the Torah (Genesis 6:9) tells us:

נֹ֗חַ אִ֥ישׁ צַדִּ֛יק תָּמִ֥ים הָיָ֖ה בְּדֹֽרֹתָ֑יו אֶת־הָֽאֱלֹהִ֖ים הִֽתְהַלֶּךְ־נֹֽחַ׃ /

Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his age; Noah walked with God.

The terminology here is unclear, so let’s break it down a bit. First, Noah is called “איש צדיק,” a righteous man. What does it mean to be righteous? According to tradition, Noah is called righteous because he cared for the needs of others (Tanhuma 4; Rashi).

Next, Noah is called “תמים בדרתיו,” blameless in his age. The term תמים, blameless, means a person of integrity, someone who is never accused of wronging others. But Noah is called “blameless in his age,” as if to indicate that, far from perfect, Noah was a person of integrity only compared with others who lived at the time. Given the fact that Noah lived among people so wicked that God wanted to destroy them, this is not exactly soaring praise.

So it turns out that Noah wasn’t extraordinary. He wasn’t chosen because he did great things. He was chosen because he strove to live a life of goodness in an indecent time, hence the coda, “את האלהים התהלך נח,” literally, Noah caused himself to walk with God. Noah’s only noteworthy accomplishment was that he worked hard to stay on a path of goodness.

Even as Noah is called upon to do something extraordinary, the Bible presents him in his full, imperfect humanity. After the flood waters subside, Noah plants a vineyard, makes a batch of wine, gets wasted, and has a private naked party in his tent. Not exactly the behavior of a “great man.”

See, the Torah isn’t especially interested in Noah’s accomplishments. Rather, it wants us to reflect on how a good but imperfect person fares when the stakes are high. And, for Noah, the answer is…good. But not great.

The same can be said of the man who is perhaps the greatest hero of the Torah, Moses. The Bible doesn’t tell us explicitly why God chose Moses, but it certainly is not because Moses is “great.”

Having grown up a child of privilege in Pharaoh’s palace, he probably never worked a day in his life. When God first appears to Moses, he is a shepherd, working for his father-in-law, and a fugitive from Egyptian justice. He struggles with self-confidence. He was not a good public speaker.

So why did God choose Moses? Well, all we’re told about him before his calling is that he repeatedly stands up against injustice, championing the cause of the victim against the oppressor. First, he kills an Egyptian who is ruthlessly beating a Hebrew slave. Then, he intervenes when he sees a Hebrew picking a fight with a fellow slave. And finally he rises to the defense of Midianite girls who were being harassed by shepherds. Moses, too, was chosen by God not because he was great, but because he was good.

And Moses, like Noah, remains imperfect even after he is elevated to an extraordinary position. Of course, Moses had many fine qualities, but he is also an inattentive husband and an absentee father. He is prone to fears, doubts, and fits of rage. The Torah presents Moses as a good, but flawed man who finds himself at the center of an extraordinary moment and must strive to do the best he can.

These examples — just two of many I could have selected — point to a crucial difference between our tradition and other systems of thought, including the culture in which we live. In other systems, one becomes a person of significance only through having remarkable accomplishments. Judaism, on the other hand, focuses not on greatness, but rather on goodness.

What’s the difference? Goodness is fundamentally a moral quality. It is about how we care for ourselves, how we treat others, how we relate to our community and the wider world. Greatness is fundamentally goal-oriented. It is about what one achieves. Put a different way, goodness is about flourishing and serving others, while greatness is about surpassing others and attaining power over them.

Consider some of the models our tradition holds up of those whose primary goal in life is the pursuit of greatness: The builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to be great. But, according to tradition, their pursuit of greatness resulted in jealousy and hatred, strife and bloodshed.

King Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, also wanted to be great. He wanted to prove to everyone – and this is a direct quote from the Bible (I Kings 12:10) — that “My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins.” So instead of relieving the people of the burdensome taxes and building projects initiated by his father, Rehoboam said, “My father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions!” (I Kings 12:11). How did that turn out for Rehoboam? Rehoboam’s thirst for greatness caused the people of Israel to secede from the kingdom, ultimately to be lost forever.

No wonder the great sage Hillel once taught, “When you seek fame, you destroy your name” (Mishnah Avot 1:13). Since the pursuit of greatness typically entails stepping on others, our tradition warns that, sooner or later, the result of that path is ruin.

Greatness has no bell curve. It is inherently unequal and competitive. Either your accomplishments are more special or important than the accomplishments of others, or they’re not. Goodness, however, takes into account our personal strengths, talents, skills, and abilities. It recognizes that each of us is limited by the resources we have and frequently handicapped by our weaknesses and by circumstances beyond our control. Therefore, focusing on goodness means we are not in competition with Abraham or Moses or with each other, because each of us can only be as good as we can be.

When the Hasidic master, the great Reb Zusya, was on his deathbed, he sat and cried bitterly. His students gathered around him, speculating about what could be making their rabbi so despondent. One said, “I bet he’s crying because he fears that God will be disappointed that he was not as righteous as Abraham.” “No,” said another, “it’s because he fears that God will tell him he was not as holy as Moses.” Overhearing the conversation, Reb Zusya turned to his students. Through his tears, he whispered: “In the coming world, the Holy One will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ Rather, God will ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ That is what I fear. And that is why I weep.”

What matters is not being as great as the greats, or better than our peers. What matters is whether you did as good as you possibly could do.

Greatness has no room for failure. Either you’ve achieved greatness, or you’re a loser. Goodness, however, has a margin for error. One doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be good. In fact, quite often the quest for perfection gets in the way of goodness.

Pursuing greatness over goodness can be paralyzing. For example, I was having a hard time starting to write this sermon. I really wanted you to like it. I wanted it to be great. The best sermon you’ve ever heard. The sermon you’ll be speaking about at lunch today, and at dinner tonight, and all throughout the rest of the year. I wanted it to be the sermon that you forward to all your friends, with the subject line reading, “FWD: You HAVE to read this sermon!” I want it to be so incredible, so universally captivating, that it gets a thousand “likes” when I post it on Facebook, and then goes viral on the Internet. I wanted it to be taught in seminaries, where future clergy will aspire to give sermons just like this one.

With goals like these, it’s no wonder I struggled to even begin typing. What could I possibly write that would guarantee my attaining those objectives? What if some of you hated it? What if it bored some of you to sleep? Or worse yet, what if you laughed at me?

That’s one of the ways the pursuit of greatness gets in the way of our being good. It sets the bar so high that we become too paralyzed to even start trying.

Another way the pursuit of greatness impedes goodness is that it distorts our approach to the task at hand, ironically making us worse at the very thing we are striving to do excellently.

Remember the movie Major League? It was one of my favorite films growing up. Major League chronicles the misadventures of a hapless bunch of misfits who strive to turn the Cleveland Indians into a championship baseball team. One of the best characters in that movie was Willie Mays Hayes, played by Wesley Snipes. Hayes was a good ballplayer, one of the fastest baserunners in the league. The trouble was, Hayes wasn’t content being good. Hayes wanted to be a legend. So, instead of playing to his strengths by hitting the ball on the ground and utilizing his speed, he would try to hit a home-run every at-bat, and always came up hilariously short. It is only when Hayes focuses on being good — aiming for base hits, running bases thoughtfully, considering his role as part of a team rather than as an individual superstar — that he could actually become great.

And, most importantly, the pursuit of greatness can harm us and those around us.

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brene Brown points out that pursuing greatness is inherently about earning others’ “approval and acceptance.” Our sense of self-worth becomes dependent on whether others like how we look, envy our possessions, think our spouse is attractive, consider our children talented or brilliant or well-behaved, or admire our professional accomplishments. When we pursue greatness, we put our worth in other people’s hands.

The problem, of course, is that the viewing public can never fully know us. They cannot see our hearts, our souls, what we are capable of and what our limitations are. They usually cannot see our intentions or our level of effort. They don’t love us and can’t forgive our shortcomings. And it’s impossible to please everyone all the time.

And when we don’t internalize the truth that universal acceptance is illusory, our life becomes an unending cycle: we seek the validation of others; we fail because that’s literally impossible; we feel unworthy because we didn’t get the approval we sought; we seek more validation to overcome the feelings of worthlessness.

In her book, Brown demonstrates that this cycle leads us down paths of “depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-paralysis.” We miss out on opportunities because we become “too afraid to put anything out in the world that could be imperfect.” We don’t follow our dreams because we become deeply afraid “of failing, making mistakes, and disappointing others.” We hurt those close to us — our spouses, our children, our friends, our co-workers – when we neglect them to focus on our great accomplishments or when we feel the way they look or act will reflect poorly on how others perceive us. We numb our feelings of inadequacy with anything that takes the edge off and quiets the voice that tells us “you are not enough.”

Because it begins with the assumption that our value depends on the adulation of others, the pursuit of greatness is always self-defeating. It’s like building a house of cards on unstable ground in unpredictable weather.

The pursuit of goodness, however, is always self-building, because it is based upon the recognition that each of us is already enough, that each of us is already worthy, that we don’t need extraordinary accomplishments or others’ approval to know that we matter.

For proof of this, look no further than the Jewish people. As Rabbi Brad Artson teaches, “Knowing that we have been chosen by God is precisely what gives the Jewish people our resilience, generosity, and fortitude.” It is telling that the mission of the Jewish people has never been understood as “be great” but, rather, “be holy” (Leviticus 19:1). “Do justice. Love goodness, Walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Only through recognizing that, no matter what, we are valued, accepted, and affirmed has our people throughout history felt emboldened to take risks, to follow our dreams, to honor ourselves and care for others.

Now, you might say that we Jews are great. Maybe so. But that status has been secured not through seeking greatness but, rather, through our historic pursuit of goodness, a path that was made possible only through God’s unconditional, unyielding love for us (Deuteronomy 7:7).

What’s true on a national scale is also true for each of us as individuals. Each of us is a child of God, princes and princesses born to the highest of sovereigns. How much greater do we need to be?

When we begin with the knowledge that we matter to the most exalted being in the universe, we can be free: free from the need to impress, free to live life our own way, free to focus on doing right by ourselves and those around us.

Through the knowledge of God’s love, we also become free to take risks, to make mistakes, and to forgive ourselves our shortcomings.

Our tradition affirms that God loves us unconditionally: ahavah rabah ahavtanu, God loves us with a great love. While we can deviate from the path God holds out for us, there is nothing we can do to stop God from loving us, nothing we need to do to earn God’s love for us.

God also intimately knows every part of us: Atah yode’a razei olam – You know our innermost secrets — ba-beten y’datikha — God knew you before you were even born (Jeremiah 1:5). While we have a responsibility to live up to our own potential, we are only competing against ourselves, and God knows both our strengths and our limitations.

And, as we remind ourselves again and again over these High Holy Days, God is El rahum v’hanun, erekh apayim v’rav hesed, a God of compassion, grace, patience, abounding love; a God who forgives us when we falter. Of course, we must learn and grow from our failures. But our tradition’s claim that God is forgiving means that it is okay to stumble and fall; we are not expected to be perfect.

When we understand that failure is part and parcel of being human, we need not to be paralyzed by the fear of failure, the pressure to be perfect, or the guilt of missing the mark. We only need to be as good as we can be. When we fall, we can look at ourselves with godly compassion and forgive ourselves. Then, we can shake off the dust, rise, and get back to work.

The pursuit of greatness has always been a major part of American culture. When business writer Jim Collins published a book a few years back called Good to Great, millions of copies flew off the shelves. Still today, greatness is very much part of the zeitgeist. The importance of making ourselves great is all some people talk about. Many of us have been made to feel that, in order to live a worthwhile life, that’s what we must strive for. In fact, when I told some folks I was writing a sermon called, “From Great to Good,” deliberately playing off the title of Collins’s bestseller, they immediately responded, “But isn’t that going backwards?!”

The answer, I think, is no. Not from Judaism’s perspective, anyway. Here’s how the prophet Jeremiah (9:23-24) puts it:

כה אמר יהוה

אל־יתהלל חכם בחכמתו

ואל־יתהלל הגבור בגבורתו

אל־יתהלל עשיר בעשרו

כי אם־בזאת יתהלל המתהלל:

השכל וידע אותי כי אני יהוה עשה חסד משפט וצדקה בארץ כי־באלה חפצתי נאם־יהוה

Thus said the Holy One:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom;

Let not the strong man glory in his strength;

Let not the rich man glory in his riches.

But only in this should one glory: In his earnest devotion to Me. For I the Holy One act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; And – declares the Holy One — it is in these I delight.

In the year to come, ask not “how can I become a success,” but rather, “how can I be more kind, just, and fair?” Ask not, “how can I stand above others” but rather, “how can I walk with God?” Ask not, “how can I be great,” but rather, “how can I be good?”

About the Author
Rabbi Michael Knopf is co-editor of 'No Time for Neutrality: American Rabbinic Voices from an Era of Upheaval', now available on Amazon, and spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia. The views expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of his congregation.
Related Topics
Related Posts