I’ve often marveled at the designation “the Great” in the history books tracing the development of Western Civilization. Consider with me those august individuals who carry that appellation: Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, Charlemagne (which means Charlie the Great), Catherine the Great, Peter the Great. In truth, the only trait that links these people, one to another, is their ruthlessness, their despotism, and the fact that they were responsible for the deaths of many, many innocents. “Great”, apparently, is a term for mass murderers who possess power.
By that definition, Caesar Augustus, Genghis Khan, even Adolf Hitler can be called “great.” But think about what that says about the values of the people who wrote the history textbooks we all used in grade school, high school, and college. The worldview of the guardians of western civilization seem to cherish wealth, power, and force. Little wonder that the world is in the sad shape it is, when the people we glorify are precisely the most ruthless. The standards are pagan—reveling in raw power and the ability to impose one’s will on other people whether they accept it or not. This is Nietzsche’s ubermentsch (superman) trampling through the annals of human history, glorifying in wealth, power, fame, and beauty.
Even as a schoolboy, I never understood why these people were great. “Terrible” seemed a better title for those who chose to initiate wars of conquest, who ruthlessly suppressed those people under their control, and who made the lives and deaths of humanity the clay with which to sculpt their own memorials.
In its starkest form, we may think we eschew that form of grandeur, but that claim would be a delusion. President Ford, slipping in the polls, attacked Cambodia and his popularity soared. The first President Bush, dropping in popular esteem, created a war in the Persian Gulf and enjoyed a remarkable increase in popularity. Even President Clinton benefited from launching an air attack against Iraq, and his successor has made war a centerpiece of his administration. However “biblical” Americans think their morality may be, the sad reality is that we consider launching assaults that result in human deaths to be “presidential,” and the more mundane and complex tasks of diplomacy and cooperation bores us and seems a sign of weakness.
Not so God. In a remarkable passage in today’s Torah portion, Moses reveals what makes for true greatness. He describes the Holy One as “God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.”
How striking! A claim of greatness that has nothing to do with demonstrations of force, with killing, or with intimidation. God’s greatness, says Moses, is based on moral rectitude, fairness, and compassion for the weakest members of society—orphans, widows, and strangers. As the Talmud wisely notes, “with God’s might, you find God’s humility.”
What a role model to hold out to the rest of us! True greatness consists in our using our strength, our wealth, our wisdom and our power to build communities of love, justice and caring, to reach out to those who cannot fend for themselves, to build bridges with all humanity and with all living things, to care for the earth and all who dwell upon it.
Let not the wise glory in their wisdom, nor the powerful in their strength, nor the rich in their wealth, says the prophet Jeremiah. Rather by training ourselves to recognize those attributes as loans, we recognize that they were lent to us for a specific purpose—not our own private pleasures but to increase the evidence for God’s love and compassion in the world.
By harnessing our material blessings to concern for our fellow human beings, we make ourselves more godly. By learning that “what I own, I owe”, we can teach ourselves to find contentment not in what can be lost (possessions, looks, power, prestige) but in what is eternal—gratitude, camaraderie, love, and fellowship. By mastering the weakness within that causes us to lash out at individuals or to strike at other nations in a reflex to shore up our own sense of decline, we can heed the Torah’s message: true might is demonstrated by humility.
Not by might, and not by strength, but by God’s spirit, will we poor contentious humans hope to bring a measure of healing and peace to this bloodied and battered world.