The Secret to Greatness

By Rabbi Dovid Markel


The Talmud[1] recounts a number of questions that Alexander of Macedon posed to the Sages of Israel:

“He said to them: Who is called wise? They replied: Who is wise? He who discerns what is about to come to pass. He said to them: Who is called a mighty man? They replied: Who is a mighty man? He who subdues his evil passions. He said to them: Who is called a rich man? They replied: Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.”

These answers that the Sages responded with were contrary to conventional thinking, concerning wisdom, might, and richness, and highlight the essential difference between Greek culture and the wisdom of Israel.

Alexander the Great was a man who sought greatness in all of these arenas.

During his youth, Alexander was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle for 7 years, until the age of 16. He surely had the best education that money could buy in ancient Greece and was considered to be a philosopher king.

Alexander was a tremendous military commander, who by the age of 30, had created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to Egypt and into present-day Pakistan. Undefeated in battle, Alexander is considered one of history’s most successful commanders. Surely he was a man who would be considered mighty.

Acquiring a vast empire that spanned from Greece to Egypt and to present day Pakistan, he was most certainly a tremendously wealthy man.

Notwithstanding his considerable achievement—and maybe because of it—the Sages of Israel declared that he had got it all wrong.

While the Sages did not deny that the search for greatness was noble, they declared that his measuring stick was incorrect, as it contained an inherent flaw.

According to Greek culture, and by extension, modern western culture as well, greatness is calculated by what one has accumulated of any given item in relation to the people around him.

Wisdom is assessed by the amount one knows in relation to others. If a person is more knowledgeable than others, he is considered wise.

Might is evaluated by the number of opponents one is able to dominate. The more one conquers, the mightier they are.

Wealth is gauged in how much money one has in relation to other people. If an individual has more than his fellow, he is considered rich, while his friend is considered poor in relation to him.

The fallacy of this approach is as follows:

A)     The definition of all these attributes have no fixed definition and can only be assessed in relation to others. (Case in point: compared to an individual who has only one dollar, someone who has a million dollars is rich; but compared to someone who has accumulated more wealth than themselves, they would be considered poor.)

B)      When the definition is something external to the individual’s essential identity, these qualities are things which can be exhausted. This essentially shows, that these things were never part of the person to begin with. It is not that the individual himself was wise, mighty or wealthy, but rather that he had these things superimposed on his person.

According to normative thought, a person is only considered wise because they are smarter than others, rich because they are richer than others and strong because they are stronger than others. Their entire identity is defined by other people, but they have no identity in their own right.

It is this concept that the Sages of Israel were imparting to Alexander and this is the marked difference between the Torah value system and its western counterpart:

When people live such a life in which they don’t define themselves, but they let others define them, then they are nothing at all.

Their wisdom is trivial, as it is not internal, but merely like a computer that can spit out knowledge—while they themselves remain foolish. They can never be satisfied by their strength, as there always can be an individual mightier than themselves.  They are on an elusive search for wealth and have created a void that can never be filled.

When, though, one is wise, wealthy, or strong because they are so internally and truly, this is wisdom, wealth and strength which are part and parcel with the person. As such, these qualities can never dissipate. The person truly is those character traits and has not merely accumulated objects that are separate from him.

It is this point that the Sages of Israel wished to impart to an individual who sought greatness.

We need to live a life where we define our identity not by what we possess, but rather we ourselves define ourselves, by ourselves, and become people who are truly wise, mighty, and wealthy.

[1] Tamid, 32a

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