Real greatness manifests itself in the little things

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Exodus 1:1-6:1
Isaiah 27:6-28:13, 29:22-23

“And the king of Egypt said to the midwives, one of whom was named Shifrah and the other Puah.” (Exodus 1:15)

When Pharaoh ruled that all newborn Jewish sons must be drowned, two courageous midwives defied the decree. Rashi, the great medieval commentator, reveals that these two women were actually Yocheved, Moses’ mother, and Miriam, his sister. Why, then, are they referred to as Shifra and Puah?

Our sages attribute Shifra’s name to the fact that she was meshaferet et havlad, she beautified the infants and smoothed their limbs after their birth. She washed off the blood that covered the infants at birth. Puah’s name is attributed to her being poah umedaberet livlad; she cooed and whispered to the infants.

It seems peculiar that the special names assigned by the Torah commemorate the care these women showed the babies. Should such an elementary task as attending to an infant at birth be the trigger for assigning such outstanding virtuous women as Yocheved and Miriam different names? These women actually saved the lives of these boys. If not for their bravery, the boys would have been drowned. Shouldn’t their heroic resistance be the reason for name changes? How about Hatzalah (rescue) and T’shuah (saving), for example.

We are taught that a name defines a person’s essence and describes his or her character. How can such rudimentary undertakings, which take place every day in hospital delivery rooms, earn such important recognition?

My rosh yeshiva (dean), Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman, of blessed memory, taught that real greatness manifests itself in the little things, the low-profile behaviors that illuminate a person’s depth of character and dedication. Headline-grabbing acts are not enough.

Many of us can find it within ourselves to rise to the occasion for that one moment of greatness. But after the action is done, we revert to ordinariness. This is superficial greatness. We congratulate ourselves and feel “good for me, I’ve saved the world and now I can go on with my life.” A meteoric rise and a descent to earth.

True greatness, however, is revealed in small but remarkable actions. These two valiant women, Shifrah and Puah, at the risk of their own lives, saved Jewish children at a time of extreme danger. Still, they managed to have the sensitivity and the presence of mind to take the time to beautify the infants’ little bodies and to soothe their little souls with cooing and whispering. This was real greatness.

Rabbi Yitzchak Goldwasser, a contemporary scholar, cites an insightful statement of the late Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, a 20th century scholar of Israel, that adds to our understanding of this issue. “It is not the action that determines an individual’s greatness, but rather it is the person who determines the action.”

In other words, if a great person performs a deed, regardless of its level of importance, it becomes a notable act by virtue of the person who performed it. The virtuous person’s actions always emanate from a source that is inherently honorable and exemplary.

Yocheved and Miriam’s brave and noble actions were no different in nature from their simple everyday activities because they all emanated from one source. The deed is not the essence; rather, it is the person who performs the deed who makes the difference. Yocheved and Miriam’s physiotherapeutic handling of the Jewish infants was unlike that of any other individual. It represented greatness, and so it is proper that people of Miriam’s and Yocheved’s stature should be named according to their simple deeds. This in itself demonstrates that their grandeur pervaded their entire essence and was reflected in every act they performed.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Pinchas Lipner is dean of the Hebrew Academy in San Francisco.