The Greatest Person I’ve Ever Met
While studying in the famed Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem for five years, I had the incredible opportunity, together with a small group of 5 or 6 of my friends, to have a private audience with the greatest person I have ever met, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel.
I say this was an incredible opportunity and not a unique opportunity because the Rosh Hayishiva (Dean of the Yeshiva) had these types of gatherings regularly with probably hundreds of students every week.
By the time I arrived at the Yeshiva and began attending these sessions in Rabbi Finkel’s modest home, he was in a very advanced stage of his 28 year battle with parkinson’s disease.
He chose to not allow himself to be medicated because of the way the drugs would interfere with his mind and take away from his Torah study.
Because of this, he would sway back and forth constantly. Many mornings he spoke with us lying down on a bed in his living room. It was very difficult to hear what he was saying, although one of my greatest regrets in life is not trying harder to listen to the pearls of wisdom that he was imparting.
In fact, as I am writing this I cannot recall what topic we learned or a single thing that was discussed, but those meetings changed my life forever.
To this day the image of this holy man is ingrained in my mind and heart. I call see him fighting to get every word out, taking time out of his busy day to build a relationship with some American kids. In those moments I truly felt as if I mattered.
Despite his greatness, or rather because of his greatness, he was approachable and humble beyond description.
Over a hundred thousand people came out to pay their respects and escort him to his (not final) resting place because he held the burden of the entire Jewish people on his shoulders.
It wasn’t just Yeshiva students that had the privilege of Rabbi Finkel’s warmth and wisdon. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz met with Rabbi Finkel and has shared many of the lessons that he learned from his encounter with this Giant.
After the rumors started spreading that he might run for President, he wrote an article in the New York Times and at the very end he shares a beautiful anecdote.
The speculation about my candidacy reminds me of a lesson from a great Jewish leader. A decade ago, I visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem with Nosson Tzvi Finkel, a widely respected rabbi in Israel. As we approached one of the holiest sites in Judaism, the rabbi halted about 10 yards away as a crowd of admirers gathered nearby. I beckoned him further.
“I’ve never been closer than this,” the rabbi told me. Astounded, I asked why.
“You go,” he said. “I’m not worthy.”
This was Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel. A true giant in every way. A humble Jewish leader.
In Good to Great, Jim Collins analyzes companies that went from good to great in contrast to almost identical companies that failed to do so in the same time frame. He and his research team set out to determine what these companies did to achieve and maintain greatness.
They uncovered several factors that distinguished these companies from the comparison companies. It is not surprising that one of the major ingredients was leadership.
The Good to Great Companies all had what Jim Collins calls Level 5 leaders. In explaining Level 5 Leaders, he recalls that their team was most surprised by what they did not find. They were expecting to find leaders that were larger than life, dynamic and charismatic.
They discovered that the number one common characteristic of every one of these leaders was the trait of humility.
This is no surprise to the Jewish people.
From our very first leader, Moses who was the most humble of all men, we have always valued humility as a not only a sign of leadership but as a prerequisite to acquiring knowledge of any sort.
I am more baffled at how Jim Collins was surprised by this. How could a person lead if they think they are already perfect?
As Leo Tolstoy put it
“An arrogant person considers himself perfect. This is the chief harm of arrogance. It interferes with a person’s main task in life—becoming a better person.”
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