Office of the Chief Rabbi

Thought for the Day: The difference between ‘true’ and ‘perceived’ greatness

Hear the Chief Rabbi’s reflections on what constitutes ‘true greatness’ ahead of Sukkot in BBC Radio 4’s ‘Thought for the Day’ slot. Transcription below.

“Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Fame and power are the objects of all men”. It seems there is a perception that being famous is a prerequisite for greatness. Popular culture, with its emphasis on the cult of the celebrity, often reinforces this belief.

Next week, Jewish communities will be celebrating the seven day festival of Succot, or Tabernacles. We have an intriguing custom during the festival – on each day we recall one of our ancestors who achieved greatness. Their timeless impact results primarily from what they achieved as ordinary people with outstanding character traits, who lived selflessly for others. They touched the hearts and moulded the minds of those around them,who, in turn, passed on their virtues to the generations that followed.

“True greatness is achieved when one becomes one real self”

There is a major difference between perceived greatness and true greatness. Perceived greatness is what one achieves in one’s lifetime. True greatness is what one achieves for all time. Perceived greatness relates to what one receives. True greatness relates to what one gives. Perceived greatness follows one’s own agenda. True greatness follows God’s agenda. Perceived greatness is what one sees in a mirror. True greatness is what one sees through a window, which troubles and challenges one. Perceived greatness is the person one becomes because that is what one believes others want one to be. True greatness is achieved when one becomes one real self.

This is the Jewish concept of teshuva, when we return, at this time of the year, to become the people that God wants us to be. We can appreciate the essence of this aspiration from the world of art. Let’s take, for example, a great sculpture, such as Michelangelo’s David. What was Michelangelo’s greatness? Surely it was his talent to create David out of nothing. I prefer a different explanation: Michelangelo took a large slab of stone. David was inside that stone. Michelangelo’s greatness was that he knew what to remove in order to reveal David, who was always there. Likewise, when we peel away the superfluous parts of our characters, rising above unhealthy peer pressure in order to reveal our true selves, then we have a chance to become truly great people.

“Most often, true greatness is achieved by ordinary people who quietly live extraordinary lives”

Amongst the greatest people I know are volunteers, who readily and enthusiastically give so much time for good causes; carers, whose selfless dedication enables others to live with dignity and joy; the broken-hearted, who silently get on with life and draw on their sad experiences to give inspiration to others; and those who live to give.

Of course, celebrities can be amongst our finest – but most often, true greatness is achieved by ordinary people who quietly live extraordinary lives.”

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