In January 2011, during an exclusive dinner held in Washington DC, presidential advisor Valerie Jarret was sitting at the head table with some important politicians and high ranking military officials. A man walked behind her, dressed in a uniform. Jarret asked him for a glass of wine. Only one problem: the uniformed man was not a waiter. He was 4-star Army General Peter Chiarelli. (What would you have done in that situation? Chewed Jarret out, military style, for her offense? Politely introduced yourself and let her realize her colossal blunder?) The general did none of the above. Instead he went over and poured her a glass of wine. When Jarret realized her mistake, she was mortified. So the general diffused the awkwardness by inviting Jarret to his home for a dinner sometime (where it’d be fine for him to serve her wine). As General Chiarelli put it in an e-mail:
“It was an honest mistake that anyone could have made. She was sitting, I was standing and walking behind her, and all she saw were the two stripes on my pants, which were almost identical to the waiters’ pants.”
General Chiarelli is not alone. Former basketball great Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz was once at the baggage claim area in Salt Lake City when a woman mistook him for a skycap and asked him to carry her bags to the car. So Karl Malone carried her bags to the car. Only when she reached in her purse to give him a tip did he explain that that was not necessary and introduced himself in a friendly manner.
Journalist and author Bob Greene quoted this story as a lesson that graciousness can pay priceless dividends, and it doesn’t cost a thing. Jewish tradition is full of stories of our greatest leaders willing to involve themselves in the most menial of tasks- on behalf of a fellow human being or an important cause.
Here’s one of my favorite stories of that genre, about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk, whose yahrtzeit was yesterday, the 21st of Av:
Once Reb Chaim came out of his house and found a group of children waiting for him. “What do you want?” He asked the youngsters.
“We would like to play horses,” the children replied.
“So nu, go play.” Said the Rav of Brisk.
They responded that no one wanted to be the horse., everyone wanted to be the driver or the passengers.
Reb Chaim immediately volunteered to be the horse. He was roped by the children and they forced him to move along.
One time when they were playing horse in this fashion, the children got tired and hungry. They told reb Chaim that they would tie him to a tree and then go home to have a snack. Reb Chaim said OK, and the children tied him to the tree with a few strong sailors’ knots. The children went home and forgot about their game, which left their horse, Reb Chaim tied to the tree. It happened to be that the tree was directly in front of Reb Chaim’s shul, and the gabbai saw this strange sight: their Rabbi tied to a tree. He srung into action and told Reb Chaim that he would cut the knots with a knife to free him. Reb Chaim refused because he did not want to disappoint the children. He insisted that the gabbai go and round up the children so that they could return and finish their game.
At the end of Gemara Megila Rabbi Yochanan said: “Wherever you find the greatness of Hashem described, there you will find His humility.”
The source of this teaching: Parshat Eikev:
For the Lord, your God, is God of gods and the Lord of the lords, the great mighty and awesome God, Who will show no favor, nor will He take a bribe.
יזכִּי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהֵי הָאֱלֹהִים וַאֲדֹנֵי הָאֲדֹנִים הָאֵל הַגָּדֹל הַגִּבֹּר וְהַנּוֹרָא אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשָּׂא פָנִים וְלֹא יִקַּח שֹׁחַד:
18He executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and He loves the stranger, to give him bread and clothing.
יחעֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפַּט יָתוֹם וְאַלְמָנָה וְאֹהֵב גֵּר לָתֶת לוֹ לֶחֶם וְשִׂמְלָה:
Hashem may be “the G-d of heavenly forces and the Master of all masters, great mighty and awesome.” But He is also described as “performing justice for the orphan and widow, and loving the stranger.”
Greatness is manifested through humility. Through our willingness to get our hands dirty, through living our lives with the attitude that nothing is beneath us if it’s for another human being or for a good cause. We need to walk in God’s ways in this way as well, and understand that our real prominence manifests itself the most when we are great enough to be humble.