Prime Minister Johnson was just another patient (Shabbos 59)

Each of us possesses a unique characteristic or gift.  These may be material possessions or intangibles.  It’s tempting to want to draw attention to your gift and seek the admiration and accolades of others.  But the distinguished individual wears their gift with an air of elegance and ease.

Moshe has spent many weeks atop Mt. Sinai interacting directly with God.  Step one was to beseech the Almighty to forgive the Israelites for the terrible sin of the Golden Calf.  Step two was to relearn all the laws of the Torah and prepare the second Tablets.  Having now spent a total of four months with God, his spiritual stature is unparalleled by any other person in history.

He descends from the mountain and his face is radiating with the glow of holiness.  The people see him and are afraid to come near.  ‘Is he a man or has he become an angel?’ they wonder.  Finally, his brother Aharon, summons up the courage to approach him and broach the conversation of his newfound angelic glow.  Moshe himself is amazed by his own aura.  He places a veil upon his face and imparts the teachings of the Torah to the Children of Israel.

“Whenever Moshe went in before Hashem to speak with Him, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moshe’s face was. Moshe would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with Him” (Ex.34).

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: לֹא תֵּצֵא אִשָּׁה בְּעִיר שֶׁל זָהָב, וְאִם יָצְתָה חַיֶּיבֶת חַטָּאת, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים: לֹא תֵּצֵא, וְאִם יָצְתָה — פְּטוּרָה. רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר אוֹמֵר: יוֹצְאָה אִשָּׁה בְּעִיר שֶׁל זָהָב לְכַתְּחִלָּה. בְּמַאי קָמִיפַּלְגִי? רַבִּי מֵאִיר סָבַר מַשּׂוֹי הוּא. וְרַבָּנַן סָבְרִי תַּכְשִׁיט הוּא — דִּילְמָא שָׁלְפָא וּמַחְוְיָא לֵיהּ וְאָתְיָא לְאֵתוֹיֵי. וְרַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר סָבַר: מַאן דִּרְכֵּהּ לְמִיפַּק בְּעִיר שֶׁל זָהָב — אִשָּׁה חֲשׁוּבָה, וְאִשָּׁה חֲשׁוּבָה לָא שָׁלְפָא וּמַחְוְיָא

A woman may not go out into the public domain on Shabbat with a city of gold tiara.  And if she went out with it into the public domain she is liable to bring a sin-offering; that is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And the Rabbis say: She may not go out with it ab initio, and if she went out she is exempt. And Rabbi Eliezer says: A woman may go out with a city of gold ornament ab initio.  Why do they disagree? Rabbi Meir holds that it is a burden (and amounts to carrying). And the Rabbis hold that it is an adornment. They are concerned lest she remove it, and show it off to her friend, and come to carry it. And Rabbi Eliezer holds: Whose manner is it to go out with a city of gold tiara? Only a distinguished lady.  In that case there is no concern, as a distinguished lady does not remove her ornaments to show them off.

The Gemara discusses the permissibility of wearing a fancy piece of jewellery into the public domain on Shabbos.  The concern is that a woman may remove the item to show it off to her friends and end up carrying it.  A distinguished lady, however, has no need to show off.  She wears her adornments with a natural nonchalance, almost as if she’s unaware they’re even there.  While everyone stops to gaze at her extraordinary item, she displays it with an air of natural grace.

Each of us possesses a unique characteristic or gift.  These may be material possessions or intangibles.  It’s tempting to want to draw attention to your gift and seek the admiration and accolades of others.  But the distinguished individual wears their gift with an air of elegance and ease.  Just like Moshe, the gift is so natural to them that they are almost oblivious to its presence.  They have no need for rewarding nods of approval; the gift itself is sufficient reward.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson almost died of coronavirus.  It was touch-and-go.  He owes his life to the extraordinary care and dedication of the NHS nurses and doctors.  Upon recovery, he paid tribute to a couple of these special individuals, Jenny McGee and Luis Pitarma.  Hearing her name on TV, McGee was shocked.  In her mind, he was “just another patient we were trying to do our best for.”  She had no need for public recognition.  She was simply doing what she does day-in day-out.  Undoubtedly, they would have provided the prime minister with the very best the NHS had to offer.  And from her perspective, one can assume Jenny McGee knows that she is one of the top nurses in the country.  She takes pride in her gift.  But her greatest reward is seeing her gift save lives every day.

A mentor of mine tells of the joy he would receive each week after delivering a stellar sermon.  He couldn’t wait for the kiddush, when congregants would come up to him, one after another, and tell him how well he’d done.  Then one day, he delivered what he thought was one of the best of his entire career.  Afterwards, he did not hear a peep.  Not even from his wife, who was ordinarily his greatest fan.  He was devastated.  Had he lost his touch?

After a few days of hearing nothing, he brought up the subject with his wife, and asked her directly what she thought of the sermon.  She replied that it was one of his best.  Bewildered, he inquired as to why she hadn’t mentioned anything.  Equally bewildered, she explained that she felt it was obvious and figured that there was no need to praise him.  At that moment, he appreciated God’s message to him.  Until that point, he had needed a pat on the back.  From then on, his personal knowledge of his gift was sufficiently rewarding, without the need for others’ approval or approbation.

You have extraordinary gifts from Heaven.  The mark of distinction is the ability to appreciate your gifts without needing others’ approval and praise.  The fact that you have been blessed by God should serve as sufficient recognition of your worthiness.  May you appreciate that the greatest accolade is the gift itself!

About the Author
Rabbi of Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, London, UK.
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