Achieving Greatness

By Shimon Gruen, Brooklyn, NY
Essays 2016

MyLife Essay Contest 2016


In this essay I would like to explore the Chassidic approach to fulfilling one’s mission in life and achieving true greatness. Throughout Chassidic works, we are given a certain understanding and appreciation of the significance and importance of creation and our role in it – a role which demands that we seek to achieve truly great things. And while some may erroneously view greatness as achieving something that ‘stands out’ in comparison to others, Chassidus teaches that true greatness is not always noticeable, and in fact differs from person to person. Through Chassidus we can gain clarity on the goal we are charged to accomplish.

As we will see, it is hardly surprising or coincidental that the Sages define the word “Chossid” as “one who goes beyond the letter of the law”[1] – and while they weren’t referring to the Chassidic movement that began with the Baal Shem Tov at the end of the 17th century, the term and the definition remain especially relevant. Indeed, Chassidus teaches that we are not here to simply follow a set of one-size-fits-all rules and obligations – as the Frierdiker Rebbe writes[2] that each individual’s mission in life is unique, and regardless of the fact that one may be occupied with good things, if he is not accomplishing his specific purpose, it is considered sinful. More specifically, the Baal Shem Tov[3] emphasized that the primary reason that a person is placed on Earth is to overcome his negative character traits. And similarly, the Alter Rebbe writes[4] that all of creation exists specifically for man to overcome the “Sitra Achra” (negative forces) – which includes[5] not only overcoming that which is naturally difficult, but also entails going beyond what can be easily achieved.

This idea goes to the very core of what Chassidus is about. The Frierdiker Rebbe[6] tells a story that was related by Reb Zalman Zezmer, about a certain fine and upstanding scholar who was not especially acquainted with Chassidus. This man once asked Reb Zalman to explain the fundamentals of the Chassidic approach, to which Reb Zalman answered that Chassidus seeks to ‘elevate the mind over the emotions’ – so that everything we do, including the good traits we express, be thought-out and acted upon only after careful consideration. The man subsequently asked the Alter Rebbe the same question, and the Alter Rebbe explained further: Even animals possess positive character traits, but they are instinctive and part of their nature; the Raven exhibits cruelty and the Eagle expresses kindness. As for humans, however, Hashem gave us our character traits to be balanced by our intellect, in order that they not be purely instinctive – thereby offering us the opportunity to serve Him through working on ourselves. Upon hearing that, the man realized that all he had accomplished in his life was instinctive and natural, and with that he fainted.[7]

This story highlights the Chasidic emphasis on elevating ourselves above our specific nature, because only that can be true Avodas Hashem; and only through such Avodah can we hope to achieve our purpose. This idea is elaborated upon by the Alter Rebbe in Tanya,[8] quoting the Possuk, ושבתם וראיתם בין צדיק לרשע בין עובד אלקים לאשר לא עבדו גו’, where he teaches that a true Servant of Hashem is not simply one who fulfills Torah and Mitzvos; rather, to be considered a ‘servant’ of Hashem requires more – it requires that one go beyond what is natural and instinctive. Avodah means that one actually exerts himself in the service of his Maker.

To illustrate this point, we find that the Alter Rebbe[9] quotes the Gemara[10] which tells a story of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon. Rabbi Chanina had placed his life in danger by disregarding the Roman edict against teaching Torah, but subsequently asked Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma, “Will I be destined a place in the World to Come?” Rabbi Yosi responded by asking that Rabbi Chanina share an episode from his life. To this, Rabbi Chanina went on to say how he had once set aside funds for his Purim meal, but the monies had become accidentally confused with funds that were earmarked for charity – and when he realized the mistake, he decided to give all of it to the poor. Rabbi Yosi replied, “In that case, may my portion be as great as your portion – you are certainly destined to go to the World to Come!” The Alter Rebbe asks, how could it be that Rabbi Chanina, who gave up his life for Torah, would possibly be denied a share in the World to Come? And what was the significance of the specific anecdote he shared in establishing that he indeed meritted Olam Haba’ah?

The Alter Rebbe answers that every person has his own natural tendencies, inherent from birth, and this is what makes one more inclined to accomplish something than another. So too, Rabbi Chanina certainly knew of all the great deeds he did, literally giving up his life to teach Torah, but he was uncertain if it was simply in his nature to take Torah to an extreme – as we know examples of philosophers and men of distinction over the generations whose thirst for knowledge and wisdom was so great that they had no other cares in this world besides their intellectual pursuits.[11] For that reason, Rabbi Yosi asked him to share an unrelated example to get a fuller picture, and the specific anecdote was significant because people who are cerebral and studious by nature are not likely to be especially charitable – his expression of both these positive qualities was testimony that he had overcome what was naturally difficult for him. Here we see that even if one does great things, if he has not yet challenged himself or gone beyond his comfort zone, then regardless of how impressed others may be, he has not yet begun to fulfill his mission in life.[12]

Before we go on, we should bear in mind that that Alter Rebbe goes on to explain in the aforementioned chapter of Tanya that it is actually a lifelong mission to transcend one’s nature in the service of Hashem. Meaning, that once one transforms himself in a given area, he is still not done. To be a ‘Servant of Hashem‘ requires that he continue to achieve even more – and only then can he be considered a true servant, as he is constantly in the mode of real service. The Alter Rebbe derives this from the Talmudic statement[13] that, “One who reviews his studies 101 times is incomparably greater than he who does so only 100 times,” and explains that the 101st time is specifically more valued than all the preceding 100 times combined. The reason being that when the norm is to review one’s studies 100 times, going beyond that means going beyond what is natural – and ‘going beyond’ is key in Avodas Hashem. So, a single event in which one goes beyond his or her nature, even if it’s something small, is of more value and is more cherished, than 100 similar or perhaps even seemingly greater acts that required lesser effort. We find this idea again in Tanya[14] with regard to the mitzvah of charity – that greatness in the area of Tzedokah is not determined by how much or how often one gives, but in getting beyond one’s instinctive selfish interests. So, to fulfill our ultimate purpose, we must take a good hard look at ourselves and overcome the areas that are naturally difficult, otherwise we may think we’re doing things that look great, and actually are great, but still be missing out on what we’re here to do.

This may sound somewhat daunting, but if we keep in mind that this is what we’re here for, and that the limitations we encounter are essentially in our own minds, we can dare to be great. With all of the above in mind, I’d like to focus on the three primary methods of Avodas Hashem in practical terms:

1) The most straightforward (and perhaps most difficult) area requiring our exertion is in focusing our efforts on things that are contrary to our specific nature and desires (whether in overcoming a natural inclination to do something wrong, or by not resisting doing what it right). As we’ve said, this is the first step towards working on the real mission in our lives and accomplishing things that are truly great. This can often be additionally challenging, as we may be getting attention and accolades for doing different things (things that we may prefer to do and which could be far less difficult), but if we seek to fulfill Hashem‘s will, and touch true greatness, we will focus on what is difficult and apply our energies there – and do so even if we are not confident that we can achieve this with perfection.

2) Then there is the Avodah that is a matter of degree: When thinking about the areas that come more easily – where we don’t feel as much of a struggle with our natural inclinations – we can challenge ourselves to go beyond what is natural or expected and improve those areas even further.

3) And in the areas of Avodah where one may be doing well, Chassidus pushes us to add an additional measure of contemplation – and then to act specifically after concluding that it is the appropriate method to serve Hashem at this time and place. This makes it much more meaningful – as it is being done intentionally and purposefully, as opposed to being driven by instinct.[15]

And just to add some real life examples of how the above can be implemented into action, I would like to offer a short list of practical ideas. I want to clarify that these aren’t random suggestions, rather, they are tailored to four basic personality types that we encounter on a regular basis (I don’t want to overcomplicate the issue, and it’s beyond the scope of the essay, but based on the four elements of Aish, Ruach, Mayim, Ofor (Fire, Air, Water, Earth),[16] we generally fall into one of the personalities below):

1) A Ruach (Air) personality is a naturally happy-go-lucky, extraverted and spontaneous person. If that’s you, adding a dimension of thoughtfulness to your cheerful attitude, thinking things through carefully before acting, as well as making and maintaining serious commitments, are ways of going beyond your nature in service of Hashem.

2) A Mayim (Water) personality is naturally mild, easy-going, introverted, compliant and empathetic. Making an extra effort to be helpful or compassionate after adding a specific G-dly intention would be an important focus; also, showing more resistance when challenged by opposition, will be Avodas Hashem.

3) Aish (Fire) personalities tend to be ambitious, goal oriented, and energetic go-getters. Adding the proper intentions to their endeavors, as well as finding time for small gestures of compassion that don’t necessarily bring a sense of accomplishment, are ways of going beyond his or her instinctive and natural tendencies.

4) The Ofor (Earth) type of personality will often be a bit sensitive and inflexible, but organized and diligent. Some ideas would include finding healthy and fitting areas to apply your diligence, especially when things don’t go as you expected – also, relinquishing control, and making an effort to be more understanding and accommodating of others will certainly take work, and would be going beyond your natural traits.

Each of us knows who we are, and we probably know where we need to put in the effort. Sometimes, we may prefer to take the easy way out, but we know that’s not why we were put here. Chassidus teaches us that this is our G-dly mission, and that He gives us the specific challenges as well as the tools that we need to work on them. The path takes a lifetime, and it lies ahead of us – step by step we can get there, if we maintain our focus and commitment.



[1] Niddah 17a, Tosafos

[2] Igros Kodesh of the Frierdiker Rebbe, (Vol 4, P. 340), quoted in HaYom Yom for the 25th of Nissan

[3] Tzofnas Pane’each by Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polnoeh (P. 27), who quotes the Baal Shem Tov who said the above in the name of Rav Sa’adya Gaon.

[4] Tanya Ch. 49

[5] Tanya Ch. 30

[6] Sefer HaMamorim 5710, P.88. See also Sefer HaMamorim 5696, Ani Ledodi, where this is explained at length.

[7] See also Sefer HaSichos 5700, Parshas Kedoshim, Seudas Laylah: The Frierdiker Rebbe explains there that Avraham Avinu was the first to do kindness not out of his natural inclination to do so, rather solely out of his desire to fulfill Hashem‘s will. This is explained using the words of the Midrash, that when guests refused to thank Hashem for all that was provided for them, Avraham Avinu would demand payment for his kindness, so as not to be gracious and kind out of his natural tendency to do so.

[8] Tanya Ch. 15 (Translation: “…see the difference between the righteous man and the wicked one, between he who serves G‑d and he who serves Him not.”)

[9] Torah Ohr, Parshas Toldos, P.19

[10] Avoda Zara 17b

[11] See also, Sichos HaRan #306

[12] In Toras Menachem, Purim 5747, the Rebbe shares a similar thought regarding Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai, who while lying on his deathbed told his disciples, “I am now going from ‘here’ to ‘there’, and I am not sure to which direction I will be taken.” The Rebbe goes on to explain that it was not a question of whether or not Rabbi Yochanan had fulfilled Torah and Mitzvos – the Gemara even relates how he commonly went beyond the letter of the law – but that he was uncertain of how to determine if he had used his inner strengths to overcome his nature when serving Hashem

See also Toras Menachem, Bamidbar 5745, where the Rebbe discusses Rabbi Nachman Bar Yitzchok, who recognized his true Awe of Heaven by knowing that he was born with strong oppositional natural tendencies that had to be overcome.

[13] Chagigah 9b

[14] Iggeres HaKodesh, Chap. 12

[15] Sefer HaSichos 5700, Shabbos Kedoshim (Seudas Laylah), the Previous Rebbe explains that this is actually a lot harder than overcoming negative tendencies. See also Sefer HaSichos 5705, P. 42, where he quotes the Rebbe Rashab, that just as one must be aware of his faults and negative tendencies, one must also be aware of his qualities and positive traits – because just as one needs to refine his negative traits, so too must one strengthen his positive ones through the above-mentioned understanding of adding the dimension of thought and intention even when one has inclination to do something anyway.

[16] In Tanya Ch. 1, The Alter Rebbe touches on various types of characteristics and how they are rooted in the four elements. To avoid confusion, I would like to clarify that the personality types that I list above are not to be confused with what the Alter Rebbe is addressing there, as they will not match up exactly without delving into the matter at length – something which requires more than space allows here. Rather, as discussed, I am referring to what the Alter Rebbe discusses in Chap 15 (and Torah Ohr – Toldos), regarding individual natures and personality predispositions.


About the Author

Displaying DSC_1889-2.jpgRabbi Shimon Gruen is the founder of Leha’ir. He offers classes, workshops, teleconferences, and one-on-one counseling to teach his unique methodology for understanding the parent- child relationship. His groundbreaking approach to conflict resolution and relationship building has won him accolades from many in the Chinuch world, as well as in the secular world.
Rabbi Gruen offers practical tools for Shalom Bayis, classroom management, effective teaching, and success in the workplace. His revolutionary methods have been mastered by countless educators, parents, and business owners who want effective solutions. His ideas have been repeated by some of the greatest minds and speakers, and are being effectively used in classrooms, boardrooms and dining rooms on a regular basis.