By Yochanan Gordon

The Biggest Loser is a reality TV weight-loss competition that first aired back in 2004 and ran for 18 seasons. I have never watched the show, but I do recall being intrigued by its name back when it first debuted. From that time until now it hadn’t crossed my mind, but something I was learning over Shabbos brought it into recall. We live in a super egoistic society where everyone, regardless of their qualifications or lack thereof, are looking to promote themselves. If you have a large enough following, you can literally travel the world rating pizza shops and have millions of people looking on as you do so, including myself. Given that fact, it isn’t an easy feat to make it cool to be branded a loser but that is just what this reality show accomplished. Of course, when the objective is to lose weight, anyone will happily be designated a loser.

There are a number of booklets that I print out on Fridays in order to learn over Shabbos. One of those is from the Beis Medrash Toras Chochom under the auspices of the Gaon and Mekubal Rav Itcher Meir Morgenstern. In last week’s booklet there were two stories retold that reminded me of this TV series and inspired me to write about the following concept. The second Reb Meir’l of Premishlan was the son of Reb Uren Leib, and was known to be a ba’al nofes, a wonder worker. Once, a famous sinner who was down on his luck came into the room of Reb Meir’l to ask for a blessing. Now, Reb Meir’l had a custom that he could not bless anyone until he figured out how that person was in some manner greater than he. He sat there in intensive thought until he arrived at the following rationale. He surmised: “If Meir’l was as big a ba’al aveirah as this Yid, he surely would not seek out any one’s blessing. The lone fact that he had shown up was itself an indication of how great he was.

Similarly, another story brought in succession to this one involved the Baal HaTanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi about whom it similarly says that he would not retire on any given day until he saw a virtue in everyone he met that would demonstrate a level of greatness beyond his own.

As funny as this seems I believe that this is rooted in a famous chassidic idea. The word Rebbe in Hebrew is an acronym of Rosh Bnei Yisrael. A Rebbe, in the words of Kabbalah and Chassidus is a general soul, whose individual soul is a conglomerate of all the souls of the Jewish people. The notion of Jews showing up at the doorstep of a tzaddik to get a berachah is not just magic or the result of a level of greatness that enables the tzaddik to bestow effective blessings. Essentially, when a Jew encounters a tzaddik there is a soul unification taking place where the tzaddik is trying to find himself in the soul of his adherent and the petitioner in the soul of the tzaddik. Therefore, in Chabad, throughout all of the generations and by many big tzaddikim a blessing could not have been given or advice dispensed until the Rebbe would relate to the issue that the person was coming to resolve, within them, on at least a minor scale.

This plays into the very definition of the word “greatness,” which is often misunderstood. Greatness doesn’t lie in the distance between the great person and the others below him or her. Greatness is in the ability of someone with extraordinary accomplishments to transcend those in relating to the people beneath him. Albert Einstein therefore is not great due to his great achievements in the area of physics; his greatness lies in his ability to explain his ideas in science to a child in third grade.

As I write, I am beginning to realize that herein lie the issue of the spies. The Torah describes that each of the spies whom Moshe sent to scout out the land of Israel were princes and in the words of the Torah: “They were all heads of the children of Israel.” However, it seems that it was their greatness that was the impetus for the fear that they displayed in precluding them from entering the holy land and engaging there with challenges that they were afraid were beyond their ability to manage. It was almost as if they scoured the land and concluded that what they saw there was not befitting their greatness. That would be tantamount to a tzaddik encountering a Jew and concluding that he cannot help him because of his lowliness. Every Jew is a spark of Eretz Yisrael. Just as the Jewish people are meant to dwell in Eretz Yisrael that means that there is a part of Eretz Yisrael in every Jewish soul. In the realm of infinity up is down and down is up because space and time are suspended. G-d create his works because, in the most essential reason offered in the midrash, he desired a dwelling in the lowest places. Similarly, as children of G-d we need to be humble enough to see the sparks of holiness in every place and in every person that we encounter and extract the holiness from within that person or place.

We live in a society, even within our cloistered walls of Jewish life, that constantly demands we reach higher and grow to attain new heights without demonstrating what that requires of us. The lesson from the lives of our tzaddikim and learning from the tragic mistake of the spies is that becoming greater means bending lower and redeeming all the people and places beneath you. Let’s finally achieve the feat that G-d has been waiting for us to achieve and have the courage to be the biggest losers and to win the game. 

Yochanan Gordon can be reached at ygordon5t@gmail.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.

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