One morning it was very foggy. It was so foggy, in fact, that the disc of the sun was clearly visible but not blinding. I was actually able to look at it directly and take note of something very interesting. It took me a moment to be sure it was the sun and not the moon because it looked small and round like a full moon.
I thought back to the story of Creation, and the conversation Hashem had with the moon, as brought down in the Gemara in Chullin (60b). One posuk says Hashem created the two great lights and another says He created a great one and a small one. The Gemara explains that when Hashem created the two great luminaries, the sun and the moon, the moon asked, “How can two kings wear one crown?” He meant to ask that only one light was needed and the other one would be superfluous.
Hashem responded, “Make yourself smaller.” This was the beginning of having one luminary smaller than the other. But the moon wasn’t so happy with that response, although it definitely answered the question. The moon asked, “Because I had a good question should I have to suffer?”
Hashem then tried several times to appease the moon but to no avail. Finally, the Gemara tells us that Hashem assigned the korban on Rosh Chodesh to act as an “atonement” for Him for making the moon feel bad.
As I looked at the sun, though, and through the veil of fog it looked so small and serene, I began to wonder about the size difference referred to and what Hashem was telling the moon.
Is it possible that the sun and the moon are in fact the same size and more or less equal? I know that scientifically you’ll tell me that the sun is a massive fire ball much further away than the moon, which is just a giant rock, but in terms of their relationship with humans on earth, and how they appear, what’s the difference?
The difference is that the sun never asked for credit for doing its job. (Later when the Jews sinned it did threaten to go on strike but that’s a different story for a different day.) When Hashem told the moon “make yourself smaller,” I wondered if perhaps he was telling the moon, “be humble.” Don’t require the crown or the accolades or the title. Just do for others. Give your light, your warmth, your energy, and don’t worry about whether they acknowledge you for it.
The sun didn’t ask about its crown. Maybe that’s why it actually has a corona. It shone because Hashem told it to and people recognize its mastery in the solar system by virtue of its actions, not its title. But this still begs the question, if, through the fog, the sun is the same size as the moon, why does it seem so much larger?
Therein, I think, lies the difference between being small, and being great. When a person feels they need lofty titles and obeisance (it’s a word, look it up if you don’t believe me) then they are actually smaller than might believe themselves to be. The greatest people of Klal Yisrael were not known by long, praise-filled titles. Moshe Rabbeinu, for example.
Today he would require a string of abbreviations before and after his name for anyone to give him credence. R’ Moshe Feinstein was known to the world as “R’ Moshe.” Surely that isn’t sufficient honor for someone of his stature?! But that’s the point. He wasn’t looking for honor. He was looking to help people keep halacha and live good and happy lives.
Other greats are known by the names of their seforim, like the Shaagas Aryeh, Chazon Ish or the Chofetz Chaim. Why is this? Because the essence of a person is the impact they can have on the lives of the people around them. These Jewish luminaries cast their light like the sun, not worried about who was appreciating it, but just happy to be doing Hashem’s will.
The moon misunderstood. He wanted to be “large and in charge.” He wanted people to view him with awe. Hashem told it, “Tzaddikim will be called in your name, like Yaakov Hakatan, Shmuel Hakatan, and Dovid Hakatan.” The greatness of these men was enhanced by the fact that they held themselves to be small and unworthy.
It reminds me of one of my favorite anecdotes. I’ve shared it before but it bears repeating.
Thomas Mann was a German writer, known for his novels, essays, short stories, and social commentary. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. One day, another writer met him and began fawning over him.
“Oh!” exclaimed the fellow. “Herr Mann! Compared to your work, my work is nothing. It is mere scratching pen on paper. Compared to your genius I am but a mere hack!” Mann is reported to have later commented, “He shouldn’t make himself so small… he’s not that big.”
If we could all just focus on others instead of ourselves, looking for ways to benefit them and serve Hashem while actually considering ourselves “small,” that, and we, would be really great.
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