Two Forms of Greatness

Rabbi David Hartman Z”L, was an important figure in the world of Jewish studies. In his youth, Rabbi Hartman was a student of the great Torah giant, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of blessed memory. When David Hartman was a young student, Rabbi Soloveitchik strongly encouraged Hartman to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy. But Hartman was hesitant: “But Rabbi, it’s dangerous to study philosophy, it might compromise my faith”, said the young Hartman to Rabbi Soloveitchik. Rabbi Soloveitchik answered his student by saying: “Dangerous? I take a flight every week from Boston where I live, to NYC, where I work and teach Torah, that’s also dangerous!”

On another occasion, Rabbi Soloveitchik advised another student of his, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, to earn a Ph.D., for without a Ph.D., argued the encyclopedic genius Rabbi Soloveitchik, one’s secular education is not complete…
What prompted Rabbi Soloveichik, a devout and towering Orthodox rabbi, to encourage his students, including many rabbis, to get out there and aggressively engage with the world, and become professors, lawyers, doctors, scientist, artists, engineers, businessmen and the like?

The answer is to be found in this week’s Torah reading, in which we encounter Abraham and Sarah, and the birth of Judaism and monotheism. In our parashah, the Almighty promises Abraham that his descendants will as pervasive as the sand in the sea shore, and also as the stars in the heavens. These two metaphors are very different. Sand represents a very earthly and mundane reality.
In Hebrew, the term for “weekday” is “yom chol” – which literally means “a sand day”. Sand represents in Hebrew everyday worldly and earthly activities and endeavors. The imagery of the stars, however, intimates a cosmic and otherworldly dimension of existence.
Thus, the Almighty’s juxtaposition of both these metaphors – the sand the stars, the worldly and the otherworldly, symbolize the twofold mission and vocation of the Jew. Throughout the course of history and civilization, the Jew has been destined and commanded by G-d Almighty to excel and to lead in worldly affairs. Indeed, from time immemorial, the Jew has been equal to the task, and has been disproportionately excelling in everything which pertains to the life of mind: politics, academia, literature, science, art, business, and the economy. In addition, Jews excel well-beyond their numbers in the free professions; as lawyers, doctors and CPAs. And when it comes to Noble Prize laureates, some 25% of all Noble Prize recipients are of Jewish descent, despite the fact that Jews constitute less than 1% of the world’s population. This is part of what it means to be as pervasive as “the sand upon the sea shore”, which the Almighty promised Abraham that his descendants will exemplify.

At the same time, the Almighty also promised Abraham that his descendants will be as manifold as the stars. In other words, the Jewish people, like the stars, are to illuminate the darkness of this world. The stars illuminate the physical darkness of the night, whereas Torah Judaism and mitzvoth enlighten the dark night of the soul, and rekindle G-d’s presence in our broken world.

To conclude, in order to live up to the privilege of being the historical and spiritual heirs of Abraham, it is incumbent upon each and every one of us to connect to the Abraham from within, and to excel in both worldly and other worldly pursuits, in the realm of the sand and in the realm of the stars, in the material and in the spiritual. May we and are descendants be blessed to do so, Amen.
Shabbat Shalom,
Tal Sessler

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