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The Greatness Within Us

Rabbi Yehoshua Alt

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Rabbi Alt merited to learn under the tutelage of R’ Mordechai Friedlander ztz”l for close to five years. He received Semicha from R’ Zalman Nechemia Goldberg ztz”l. Rabbi Alt has written on numerous topics for various websites and publications and is the author of the books, Fascinating Insights and Incredible Insights. His writings inspire people across the spectrum of Jewish observance to live with the vibrancy and beauty of Torah. He lives with his wife and family in a suburb of Yerushalayim where he studies, writes, and teaches. The author is passionate about teaching Jews of all levels of observance.

The Greatness Within Us

We tend to think that struggles in certain areas show how low a person is. However, the opposite is true as this shows the greatness that lies within the person, says R’ Tzadok Hakohen.[1] The metaphor is given of a robber, as he pursues the wealthy, not the poor, since they are the ones who possess the money. The same can be said of the Yetzer Hara as he pursues the important people, the holy נשמות. These people can be compared to the finest restaurant, which contains the most garbage (since many people eat there).[2] The same is with those who have great potential.


It is through overcoming these struggles and tests that we elevate ourselves and can become great. In fact, this is what the word נסיון, test, means as in לבעבור נסות אתכם.[3] Through overcoming tests we can fulfillלהודיע לבני האדם גבורתיו,[4] making known to us our abilities as it brings forth our potential to fruition.[5]


Yosef tells his brothers, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive.” His brothers were unable to answer because נבהלו מפניו, they were disconcerted. Yosef then says I am Yosef אשר מכרתם אתי מצרימה, whom you sold to Mitzrayim.[6] By saying I am Yosef whom you sold to Mitzrayim he is embarrassing his brothers more? The Sefas Emes[7] explains that the brothers surely felt the Kedusha of Yosef. This is what is meant in נבהלו מפניו. The brothers thought when Yosef was by his father he was much greater. Yosef says I am Yosef whom you sold to Mitzrayim meaning I reached this level[8] because of being sold.[9] This removed their pain.[10]


The story is told of a high-ranking Israeli officer in the secret service of Israel that was attacked one day by Arabs who accused him of being a spy thereby trying to convince him to relay information. The officer didn’t budge. The Arabs were so insistent that they beat this officer until the point that he was ready to relate information. They then exited the room and spoke amongst each other in Hebrew, not knowing the victim was able to hear. The victim then understood that they were just testing him to see if he will leak information. If he refrains from doing so, he realizes, then he will continue and rise to the next level. They then enter and begin to beat him again. However, he now has no problem tolerating the beating thereby passing the test since he knows it is all for him to get to a higher position.[11] With this powerful insight, we should view life’s tests.[12]


The analogy is given of a wagon that is traveling speedily as this is a sign it is going downhill. This is contrary to when it is going slow with difficulty as then it is going uphill. The same applies in our service of Hashem. The Pasuk states לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, it is not good for man to be alone. This can be understood that it is not good for man to be alone—without challenges. So, as the Pasuk continues אעשה לו עזר כנגדו, I will make a Yetzer Hara that will counter and give him struggles.[13] In this way, we can grow.


Many years ago there was a unique manuscript from a Rishon that was discovered in the Cairo Geniza.[14] This came to the attention of a wealthy Jew named R’ Yosef, who made it his mission to procure and publish it. This would be the first time this manuscript would be seen in centuries. Although it was difficult, in the end he was able to acquire it, at a cost of $750,000. R’ Yosef gathered a team of experts to study the manuscript. Then the unthinkable happened. While the manuscript was opened, one of the people present leaned over to see a certain line and in doing so, his coat brushed against a cup of hot coffee causing the entire cup to spill. The spilled coffee ruined the manuscript, making it undecipherable. R’ Yosef’s response to the man who spilled the coffee who was so embarrassed was: “Don’t worry. I’ll get you another cup of coffee.” R’ Yosef explained that he went to such lengths to retrieve this manuscript because he felt it was the will of Hashem to spread this Torah to the world. Now the will of Hashem is not to be angry. So what is the difference? Either way, I am just doing the will of Hashem.


[1] Tzidkas Hatzadik 44. He writes that if one has a big yearning for a physical desire, he shouldn’t be sad and think how low he is since he has such a desire rather it is just the opposite. If he channels it he can become great. With this we can grasp why in the future the Yetzer Hara will appear to Tzadikim like a mountain and to the wicked as a strand of hair (Succa 52a) since to the Tzadikim it was a much stronger desire. This is in line with כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו, the greater one is, the bigger his Yetzer Hara.

[2] Even though at times we may fail, we need to repeat the motto “a failure is an event, not a person.” “Yesterday ended last night.” One doesn’t drown by falling in water rather one drowns if he stays there. We should also bear in mind that “failure is a detour, not a dead-end street.”

[3] Shemos 20:17. Someone once commented the only time we grow is when we are uncomfortable.

[4] Tehillim 145:12. The adage goes “for trivial things, any obstacle is great. For great things, any obstacle is trivial.”

[5] R’ Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, volume 1, p. 79) relates how he struggled to quit smoking and failed, but continued to fight this battle. In the footnotes, his students added that he eventually succeeded in quitting.

[6] Breishis 46:3-4.

[7] Vayigash, תרלו, s.v. בפסוק. It has been pointed out that when one flatlines, he is dead. It is only when the line is going up and down on the machine that one is alive. The same is with life as when everything is smooth and easy, one is not truly alive.

[8] The Gemara (Menachos 29b) says about R’ Akiva that he will expound על כל קוץ וקוץ, upon each point mounds of Halachos. This can also be understood as for each pain (קוץ), many Halachos and Torah came forth, as suffering can elevate a person. (See אור לשמים, Lech Lecha, s.v. ויאמר ה’). This is just as we see by R’ Shimon Bar Yochai whose acumen in Torah increased dramatically during the years he spent in the cave (Shabbos 33b).

[9] Sefas Emes, Vayigash, תרמג, s.v. בפסוק. The Alter of Navardok once remarked “everyone wants to believe in themselves and understand God. We would be better off if we would believe in God and understand ourselves.”

[10] The brothers hated Yosef and sold him. However, it was because of all his challenges that he mounted to becoming Yosef Hatzadik. The brothers asked Yosef to forgive their sins—עבדי אלה-י אביך, the servants of your father’s God (Breishis 50:17). In these words the brothers were hinting to Yosef that if it weren’t for all the hardships he endured, he would be a regular person as he wouldn’t have attained his greatness. His growth came through the difficulties. Where is the hint? In אלה-י אביך as it is an acronym for אי לא האי יומא כמה יוסף איכא בשוקא, if not for that day, how many Yosef’s are there in the market place and I would have been indistinguishable from them (Pesachim 68b)!

[11] A famous champion boxer, Mohammed Ali, took about one million hits in his career. Likewise in spirituality, we may take many hits but we must make sure to get back up.

[12] It is said that “if you are only willing to do what is easy, life will be hard. But if you are willing to do what is hard, life will be easy.”

[13] Breishis 2:18. We should keep in mind “the road to success is always under construction.”

[14] The Cairo Geniza is a collection of some 400,000 Jewish manuscript fragments and Fatmid administrative documents that were found in the Geniza or storeroom of the Ben Ezra Shul in Old Cairo, Egypt. The Geniza texts are written in various languages, especially Hebrew, Arabic and Aramaic. In addition to containing Jewish religious texts such as Biblical, Talmudic and later Rabbinic works (some in the original hands of the authors), the Geniza gives a detailed picture of the economic and cultural life of the North African and Eastern Mediterranean regions, especially during the 10th to 13th centuries. The 1896 discovery of the Cairo Geniza was one of the greatest Jewish treasures ever found. It has provided the world with some of the most important documents of the medieval Middle East. Pages from the Geniza identify hundreds of previously unknown people as well as provide new information about well-known men. More than 200 previously unknown poems by R’ Yehuda Halevi (c. 1080-1145) were found in the Geniza. Perhaps the most important papers found belong to the Rambam (1135-1204). The Geniza contained over thirty works authored by the Rambam, including commentary on some Mesachtos of Mishnayos and a number of letters. Before this discovery, only a few lines of original Rambam writings had ever been found. Today, a large portion of the Cairo Geniza’s documents are available at the University Library in Cambridge, where documents are under glass, bound in albums or placed loosely in boxes. Smaller collections are spread out across the world, in libraries in London, Oxford, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, Budapest, Leningrad and Philadelphia.

Author of the books Fascinating Insights and Incredible Insights

Listen to the short Fascinating Insights Podcast at

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